Ellie came into my life and made me a mom in 2010. Since she was a newborn, she has been joyful, with a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eyes.
While this is still true, I still found myself concerned this past winter of 2015 when she told me she did not want to be a girl because boys in her pre-k told her that only boys can be Spiderman.
Of course I did the perfunctory parenting of telling her that girls CAN be Spiderman and anything they want. She disputed this and over time developed her own four-year-old rationale for how she can still be Spiderman when she plays-she has to "turn" into a boy and then when she is finished playing Spiderman, she turns back into Ellie the girl.
While admiring her creativity and resourcefulness, I found myself growing panicked that my joyful still toddler daughter was already showing signs of wavering confidence and dislike about herself. What does a parent do in this case?
I first reached out to her teachers and told them what Ellie had been saying about the boys’ comments and about having to be a boy to play superheroes. The teachers confirmed that some boys had said this and reassured me that they addressed it by reinforcing the message that boys AND girls can be superheroes.
When I asked what else they had done through concrete activities, books, and discussions to confront gender bias, they told me that they have not done anything more but if I had any ideas I was welcome to come in and work with the class.
If I had any ideas……Well, I just did not to be honest.
How do I work with my daughter in a concrete, developmentally appropriate way to help her understand she can stand proud and be a girl always? And even if I do have the most innovative and effective approach in working with her, how does it fully counteract what is not is being addressed at school with children as part of their social and emotional development?
That is when I turned to my community listserv, parentandme1, to see if other parents had had similar experiences with their girls and how they had handled it.
Within minutes of the post in late March 2015, I began to get private emails from neighbors giving me advice, links to articles, and encouragement. The site itself became saturated with parents who shared similar experiences with their daughters and also with their sons who they have heard making gender-biased comments similar to what Ellie heard at school.
The posts went on for days and weeks. They were encouraging and positive and made me feel part of a thoughtful, caring community. I had parents of children in Ellie’s class and friends from my neighborhood ask me if she was THE Spiderman Ellie from the listserv. Each had encouraging things to say to me for raising such an important gender issue.
While the posts on the site were still steady, a local mom named Cheryl suggested that we have some kind of superhero parade that could help Ellie see that both boys and girls could be superheroes. This was exactly the type of concrete, touchstone experience that could help me bridge meaningful conversations with Ellie around gender bias issues! Better yet, it could be a parade for the whole community that could open up dialogue with all of our children!
Cheryl and I stayed in touch. I suggested that on June 7 we could have the parade for the local children to march a short distance along Fort Washington Avenue to Fort Tyron park with inspiring posters in hand and enjoy popsicles when we get to the park.
We posted this on the listserv and once again the posts started to come with neighbors’ interest in such an event. Two other women, Adriana and Linda, joined forces with us to build the idea and plan for the event. We kept the planning very simple and we advertised with a great poster that Adriana and her husband made.
Cheryl reached out to a journalist from DNAinfo about the event who wanted interview me about my story that led to the parade. Once the story went public the next day, momentum built with various news outlets calling and emailing me and asking me to tell them the story.
On the day of the parade, we really did not know what to expect. We pictured a handful of folks bringing their kids on the march. I also envisioned news trucks packing it up realizing this was indeed the little league of community parades.
We packed up our wagon with Ellie and her stuffed Spiderman doll to walk the five blocks to Bennett Park. Ellie, in a twist of four-year-old irony, chose to wear her new Ninjago Golden Ninja outfit instead of her beloved Spiderman one that began this whole wild ride for us.
We stopped for iced coffees at our neighborhood cafe and made our posters for the parade that read, “Girls CAN Be Superheroes” and “We All Can Be Superheroes.”
While still at the café, a couple of tiny superheroes dressed as Superman and Spiderman passed by with their parents in the direction of the park. Also on her way to the parade was Ellie’s best friend, dressed as Elsa, who we deposited in the wagon with Ellie for the rest of the ride.
As we reached Bennett Park, it was clear that this was no small affair. While the heroes were all pint-sized, the parade was not. Around 100 or so families with their tiny Supermen, Spidermen, Batmen, Robins, Buzz Lightyears, Ironmen, Captain Americas to name a few all gathered.
Families mingled and bantered while the kids surveyed their fellow heroes. Some, including Ellie, stormed up the big granite rocks in the middle of the park, most likely envisioning themselves as their alter egos saving the day and fighting bad guys.
Some parents dressed as their own favorite superheroes or as original personas they assembled. Even some dogs donned their superhero finest, ready to march with the rest of us.
In the sea of people I somehow managed to find two of the organizers, Cheryl and Adriana. This was the first time we had actually met in person and we all hugged like lifelong friends, giddy with the turnout and the positive energy circling around the group.
Deciding it was time to get things started, Adriana’s husband lead the group in the front with superhero music as we headed out of the park toward Fort Washington Avenue.
Ellie, close to the front, shone like liquid gold from head to toe in all her glory as she sat in our wagon to make the 10-block trek with the rest of the superheroes up to Fort Tryon Park.
At Margaret Corbin Circle I stopped to survey the parade before entering Fort Tryon Park. I marveled at all of the families streaming into the park with the line so long I could not see the end. As far as I could see I spied children walking, biking, or on scooters by their parents’ sides. Some rode on their parents’ shoulders or were tiny enough to be in a mother’s or father’s arms. Everyone seemed so happy.
At the end of the Heather Garden the children piled onto a set of steps while parents snapped photos.
Many families lingered after the parade to visit and talk while their kids, Ellie included, swirled in their costumes with popsicles in hand and pals all around.
Several parents asked if we would do this again next year. The other organizers and I emphatically agreed that one should happen. The tradition of a parade in the spirit of tolerance should carry on.
It is Sunday evening as I write this, and I can hear my Ellie singing “Let It Go” as she prepares for bedtime. The parade is hours behind us now but it has left a warm, cheerful glow in our home.
Despite the news syndicate attention that followed Ellie from Bennett to Fort Tryon Parks this was merely a day for her celebrate being a superhero with everyone else.
We have had some family conversations today about what Ellie saw and how many girls were dressed like Batman and Spiderman. We pointed out that it is true that girls can be superheroes, too. She seemed to agree in quiet assent. We will continue to use the experience as a teachable moment.
About a dozen articles have surfaced about our story and the parade over the last few days. I have printed every single one of them that I will keep pristine for her in a folder.
However, right now Ellie knows nothing about this underlying chatter and the stir she has caused by just wanting to be Spiderman. To be who she is in her make believe land.
Later, when she is a bit older, she and I with my husband will discuss how she was a real life superhero by inspiring a whole community to want something better for its children so it banded together to teach a positive message to our boys and girls about loving who they are and each other.