Parenting with the ‘Same Words’ by Sara Frykenberg

Sara FrykenbergLast month I shared a lesson a student of mine taught me about subjugated knowledge and the colonized mind. This month, I would like to continue in a similar grain and consider how we share the practice of oppression through language, and particularly, as we teach language to our children. Working to counter kyriarchy in my parenting, I often find myself asking, what I am really saying, reading, or singing to my daughter?

I walk with my daughter almost every morning, and as new parents are often encouraged to do, I try to talk to her continuously about a variety of topics. While I do talk to Hazel about meaningful things, like my hopes for her, stories about her family, the joys of reading, etc.; most days my monologues are inspired by whatever we happen to walk by at the moment.

One morning we talked about the differences between fences, gates and walls, their purposes, and the different materials from which they are constructed—I was really reaching on this day. We repeatedly talk about the flora and fauna. I have discovered that there is what feels like an inordinate number of avocado trees in the say, six square blocks surrounding our apartment. How do the people who live here eat all of these avocados? Do they eat them? Do they let them rot on the tree? This seems like a terrible waste of avocados, though there is one home with a bin in the front yard with a sign that says “free avocados,” in which the homeowners leave the fruit for neighbors and passers by like Hazel and myself.

This may seem silly and often, the discussions are silly, but taking to heart what I have learned from liberative feminists, post colonial scholars, and semiotics, I also critically observe how and what I say. One day, trying to make it fun to point out different plants and bushes, I pretended to be an announcer for kind of a nature show. Somewhere in-between introducing the “the deadly oleander,” and “a lovely variety of cacti,” it occurred to me that I was actually engaging in a kind of trope for a travel narrative. It wasn’t that I was saying anything particularly oppressive or colonial; rather, I realized my tone, my ‘how,’ came from the stories of my own youth—it was a kind of cross between stories related to  “Dr. Livingston, I presume,” and Crocodile Dundee.

I had to ask myself: what parts of this colonialist legacy are being communicated or reinforced in my silly discussion of plants? Are any? Are lots? How? How can I do something about this? How can I participate in patterns of language and yet refract imbedded meanings surrounding a style of narration? We walk a fine line when trying to create liberation within a language so entrenched in domination.

Teaching and talking with my daughter, I find myself revisiting the subtle and not so subtle kyriarchial language in my own upbringing in ways that I do not when speaking to other adults with my very intentional and well-trained adult language. Parenting sometimes feels like a trip back in time where I remember and more readily feel my joy of singing particular songs or reading particular stories, simultaneously feeling my inner feminist and adult self cringe at the messages in too many of these stories.

I watched and sang along to The Sound of Music more times than I remember as a child. My sisters, brother and I joked that we were the Frykenberg-von-trapps later in life, singing together at parties—howbeit, less melodiously. I still love this movie, and sing some of the songs from this musical to my daughter at bedtime. The other night, however, I found myself singing from “You are sixteen, going on seventeen:”

“You wait little girl/ On an empty stage/ For fate to turn the light on/ Your life little girl/ Is an empty page/ That men will want to write on/ Toooooo write on….”

Yikes! :(

Not what I want to teach my daughter, though the song’s melody keeps popping into my head… so I am trying to find new songs to replace those I know by heart.

There are some easy fixes to obviously oppressive narratives such as these. I can sing different songs and choose different stories. However, what’s not so easy is remembering and dealing with my childhood love of some of these narratives. What’s not so easy is that some domination of self and others is internalized and all too easy to practice and think before the liberative reeducation kicks in.

I bite my tongue every time I instinctually want to tell Hazel: “that’s not nice.” The patriarchy, after all, needs us to be “nice girls.” I am also wary of using “good girl” language in certain situations, knowing that many “good girl/ bad girl” narratives are used to create shame, and so self-estrangement and control. Hazel is “good,” in the way that God says creation is “good” in the Hebrew Bible; she is not good because she was quiet in the car and sleeps through the night (and so bad if she doesn’t).

I have been working to find new, more particular words when speaking to Hazel about her actions, like: “You are being so patient Hazel, thank you.” “I’m sad that you’re upset Hazel. Mommy is here with you.” “I don’t know what’s wrong Hazel, but Momma is here with you.”

Semiotics teaches us that language is symbolic—a series of signs that stand in for larger meanings. Deconstructionist theory and some feminist constructivists tell us that the “codes” attached to many of these signs are so entrenched within cultural (and kyriarchal) norms that we cannot access the “truth” of the reality that a sign represents, if there is any essential “truth” to that reality at all.

However, liberative theories and theo/alogies also teach me that although I use, teach with and even feel with and within a language heavily coded with domination, I may also refract its meanings. I can change language, challenge it, redirect it, play with it, and also reclaim it, so that my daughter, Hazel, might learn something different than I did when hearing the ‘same words.’


Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the Women’s Studies in Religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence.  In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.

Categories: Children, Education, Family, General, parenting, Postcolonialism

Tags: , , , ,

5 replies

  1. Thanks, Sara, you mentioned: “We walk a fine line when trying to create liberation within a language so entrenched in domination.”

    And when you say: “I am here with you,” by example you also teach a deeper meaning. In fact, just to be here now, to be present and accounted for, that awareness, can also be for ourselves a wonderful form of support, as well as an elixir for loneliness.


  2. Profound questions and reflections. It’s great to be an awake mother. Yeah, I agree, toss “I am sixteen going on seventeen.” Or put in in historical context eventually. Broadway musicals are fun! Silliness can be holy too and play is essential. I bet as soon as Hazel can ask questions and tell you what she sees, there are going to be some amazing daughter-mother conversations! Keep walking!


  3. Lucky Hazel! She’s lucky to have a mother who talks to her. And you’re lucky to have someone to speak thoughtfully to. Is there a play in the making in your conversations?


  4. Sara, Thanks for this great post. It reminds me of years ago (my daughter is 34) when I would read stories and change the pronouns as I went along (he to she, most of the time). In fact, I enjoyed the “Just So Stories” and thought that I should thoroughly update them, but ran up against so-called “traditionalism.” Oh well, there were wonderful rewrites of the Princess stories, and that’s what I read instead. And then my daughter wrote a fractured fairy tale about the “Princess and the Pea” when she was 10 or 11 that was so feminist that I was amazed. It’s fun to have a feminist daughter…even now.


  5. Thanks for this highly stimulating post, Sara! Reading it made me think about the lack of feminist stories for children. There is one I can highly recommend, called “Moon Over Crete,” by Jyotsana Sreenivasan.

    The fiction I write for adults is Goddess-oriented, and I’m careful to avoid using “male-oriented” language. (For a while in the 1980s editors were urged to change gendered language to nongendered, but that seems to have gone by the wayside.)

    In my stories, the female protagonists always have agency. They do not wait helplessly to be “rescued” but take action themselves. Some have criticized me for writing about GLBT characters and people of color, but my reply is always the same: I don’t live in an all-white, all-het world, nor do I have any desire to do so.

    When Hazel grows up, she’ll have a ton of feminist fiction to read! My own and the superb novels of our sister Elizabeth Cunningham, just to mention two. Blessed be.


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