It was mid-January of 2011 and Christmas was so last year, so my daughter Hannah’s attention turned to the next holiday that would bring gifts. After an unsuccessful attempt to convince me we should exchange gifts in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, she set her sights on Valentine’s Day.
“I know what I want for Valentine’s Day, Mommy,” she told me one afternoon.
“Oh, yeah?” I asked, warily.
“I think you and I should get matching rings,” she announced.
Part of me liked the idea. For starters, it wasn’t her usual plea for another cat, which was a relief. And second of all, it was flattering. Just like when she pines away for the day when we can share clothes, the notion that my daughter wants us to be alike makes me feel good.
But I also recognized that the pitch for matching rings could simply be a way to sell me on the idea of springing for a ring. If she had just asked me to get her a ring for Valentine’s Day, I would probably vetoed the idea out of hand. After all, customary Valentine’s Day gifts for kids are things like cards, candy hearts and cute little stuffed animals — not jewelry. But since she presented it as something she wanted for both of us, it played to my soft spot.
On the other hand (as Randy Travis might say), the symbolism attached to matching rings was a little troubling to me. I had been giving some thought lately to the messages that we send to young girls as we raise them. And I was troubled by the fact that, even in these modern times, we bombard girls from a young age with the message that one of society’s principle expectations of them is to get married.
I was troubled by the fact that, even in these modern times, we bombard girls from a young age with the message that one of society’s principle expectations of them is to get married.
Throughout their childhood, the average American girl encounters a potpourri of customs and traditions culled from various religions and cultures that tell her that we all expect her to get married when she reaches adulthood.
From First Holy Communion when girls are in second grade, to quinceaneras when they turn fifteen, to so-called “purity rings” when they start dating, we provide them with a long train of events complete with bridal-inspired accessories that all seem at some level reminiscent of weddings.
White dresses, big pageants complete with attendants and, yes, even rings — all their lives, they are showered with a series of dress rehearsals for the Big Day. And at the heart of all of these traditions seems to be the belief that girls are lesser beings and need to be attended to.
Purity rings are given by fathers to daughters symbolize a daughter’s promise to keep her virginity until marriage. By likening a daughter's relationship with her father to the one she will have with her husband, throwing promises about sexual behavior in the mix, then symbolizing the whole thing with a ring... well, this column isn't long enough for me to comment on all the reasons I find that tradition to be unsettling.
I love a good Jane Austen novel as much as the next girl, but those are not messages I want my daughter to internalize.
I will also save for another day the exploration of the viability, practicality or even desirability of the idea of remaining a virgin until marriage now that both men and women are waiting on average until they are pushing thirty to get married (if they choose to marry at all).
But I will say this: the purity ring custom sends the message that a girl remains her father’s charge until she gets married at which time he turns the responsibility over to her husband. It also implies that since a girl’s primary goal in life is to get married, she needs to be vigilant about remaining desirable to men who are shopping for a bride. If she is not “pure,” she is defective and that will hurt her chances of getting "chosen." I love a good Jane Austen novel as much as the next girl, but those are not messages I want my daughter to internalize.
Also laced in traditions like purity rings and quinceaneras is the notion that girls should not trust their own judgment and must always listen to other people who know better. And perhaps not coincidentally, the other people who know better always seem to be male authority figure like their dad, a priest or the ultimate boss — no, not Bruce Springsteen — God.
I understand that some of these traditions have religious significance, and I’m not criticizing that. I appreciate that religious traditions can be as rich and rewarding as they can be complex and convuluted. (I am Catholic, after all.) What concerns me, though, are the messages underlying these traditions — messages regarding girls’ inherent worth, their ability to make good decisions on their own and what they are expected to do with their lives.
When it comes to making decisions and navigating her way through the years, I want Hannah to know she can count on her family to guide her when she's growing up and to stand by her when she's grown; but along the way, I also want her to learn to listen to her own instincts and to develop a sense of trust in her own judgment.
And when it comes to sex, I want my daughter to appreciate the power and significance of adult intimacy and wait until she is both responsible enough and ready to handle all that it involves physically, emotionally and perhaps consequentially. (Or in the alternative, we can just go with her big brother's idea and send her to live in a convent when she gets old enough to date.)
What concerns me are the messages underlying these traditions — messages regarding girls’ inherent worth, their ability to make good decisions on their own and what they are expected to do with their lives.
In all seriousness, it’s not that I object to the idea of Hannah getting married when she grows up. I mean, what mom doesn’t have the occasional day dream about her daughter getting married and becoming a mom herself some day? But if and when Hannah decides to get married, I want it to be because that’s what she wants to do, not because she’s been conditioned to think that’s what she’s expected to do.
There are things I expect of Hannah and then there are things I want for Hannah. I expect that she will go to college, be responsible and work hard. I want her to be healthy and fulfilled. But fleshing out the details of being fulfilled will be up to her — getting married will be an option, but it will not be an expectation.
So, what about Hannah’s request for matching rings for Valentine’s Day? They say that flattery gets you everywhere. In this case, it got Hannah to the James Avery store at the Hill Country Galleria. She selected our matching rings and we decided that they symbolized these simple truths: our love for each other and our affection for jewelry. No hidden meanings. No subtle expectations. No long term promises. Just two matching rings instead of a box of candy.
Jewelry is always better than candy — it's never too soon to internalize that message.