I recently read Teach Your Children to Succeed by Putting Obstacles in Their Way by Eric Sentell on Role Reboot. The heart of Sentell’s essay is his story about a day from his youth that he looks back on as a “source of pride, self-reliance, and independence.” He was sixteen years old and in need of an inspection from a mechanic to drive his truck legally. He ran into complications in the form of a burnt-out taillight and no one to fix it for him. The story is a short one, allegedly telling of his resourcefulness in dealing with this problem without reliance on his parents. While I agree with the premise that kids ought to be left to their own devices frequently to develop their independent problem-solving skills and confidence, I do want to point out the gendered landscape in which boys and girls develop (or fail to develop) such skills. I do not think that Eric Sentell is an arrogant man; I don’t know him at all, so I couldn’t comment on his person even if I wanted to. I do, however, see a number of references in his story to circumstances that are not available to many boys, and not to any girls at all. In other words, the article is packed with unacknowledged privilege and traces of sexism. Let’s go through this thing piece by piece.
First of all, let’s be clear about the fact that Sentell’s parents did not put obstacles in his way. The obstacles emerged on their own: the taillight broke, the inspection came due. None of these little setbacks can be traced back to his parents’ attempts to teach him responsibility. His parents simply refused to eliminate the obstacles for him. Why is this distinction so important? Because there are lots of parents who do put obstacles before their children, and they don’t do it to teach responsibility. They do it to stop their children from becoming independent. The homeschool parents who teach “character training” instead of algebra so their kids won’t be able to go off to a liberal university and abandon their faith. The resentful parents who won’t allow their kids to take on student loans because they’re committed to being debt-free, thus setting their children’s careers back at least a decade as they try to drum up the funds to gain the skills they need. The controlling parents who use younger siblings as leverage to keep older ones from leaving the nest. When parents deliberately make their children’s lives harder, they do not teach them valuable lessons about responsibility. They just make their children’s lives harder. What happened to Sentell was ordinary life and its ordinary obstacles. It was not a critical situation. His parents’ refusal to step in had zero long-term consequences for his adult life.
Second, the opening of this story reveals that Sentell’s parents actually had smoothed the road for him already. He had his own truck at sixteen. I’m twenty-six and I haven’t even finished paying off my first car (which I bought last year – it’s 13 years old). A car or truck is a crucial asset in America, where public transit is usually hopelessly inadequate. Even if it was the ugliest, least reliable, rustiest truck in the country, if it could roll down the street and get him where he wanted to go, he had something valuable. And because it was a truck, it opened him up to work opportunities that could earn him money: the ability to haul big stuff around. Sentell does not describe the purchasing of this truck as a huge obstacle, so I imagine his parents either helped him buy it or gave it to him. Obstacle circumvented.
Third, he went to a mechanic and a junkyard. In neither place was he threatened or harassed. Do you know what happens to me when I walk into a mechanic’s shop? I get leered at. My breasts wind up in a one-sided conversation as I attempt to steer the proprietor’s eyes northward and get a straight answer about my car. If I actually demonstrate knowledge, they look incredulous and actually mock me. Last year, a mechanic actually looked me in the eye, smirked, and said, “Women know nothing about cars.” He then went on to tell a long story about how a woman he served years ago freaked out when she stopped by halfway through a complicated job and asked if he could put her car back together. I doubt this actually happened, as most people are smart enough to know that cars are made, not born and can be dismantled and reassembled at any time with the right tools. The function of the story was to remind me that this mechanic shop was not my place. My ovaries disqualified me.
Fourth, the mechanic taught him how to do the repair. I’ll say more about this below. For now, suffice it to say that this is not an example of self-reliance.
I have always loved cars. I’ve thought about going back for an automotive repair certification after I finish my PhD, just because cars are that interesting to me. But my current knowledge is highly theoretical and rudimentary. I’ve educated myself as much as I could (and continue to do so) on the internet, through videos and books and just plain poking around under the hood to identify parts. I make a point of memorizing the details of every job I get done on my car for future reference. I know how long my car should run, when I’ll need to replace the engine, and how to keep the frame intact for another decade at least. I love the bits out of my car. But I can’t perform any work on it myself. Not just because I’m too poor to own a lift or set of jacks and all the relevant tools (although that is a significant obstacle). Mostly, I can’t do the work because everyone I ever asked for help either refused to teach me or treated me like a joke. My male friends pretended they didn’t hear me, or they openly laughed. My father said, “Tomorrow.” My male friend’s father said, “Sure, sometime.” I kept asking, reminding, showing up and watching, offering to help. Not once did anyone ever let me near a wrench. You can bet that I resent this, bitterly. I was willing. I was eager. I was determined. They were amused.
So let’s imagine that somehow sixteen-year-old Sierra has acquired a free truck with a busted taillight and a mechanic on a tight schedule. The inspection is important, so she swallows her pride and deals with the leering proprietor of the junkyard, although she probably stops somewhere and pick up a bottle of mace first, just in case some creep decides to show her that she doesn’t belong there. She doesn’t tell her father, who would never let her go to a junkyard alone in the first place – although he tells her to her face that he would let his son go if he had one. After a lot of nervous shuffling through the mysterious objects in the junkyard storefront, she finds what she needs. Now what? She has the taillight, so she’ll take a chance and ask the mechanic to install it. She burns rubber getting out of that place, still feeling the proprietor’s eyes on her rear end.
Once back at the shop, she jumps down out of the truck and holds out the taillight to the mechanic. He looks up from his paperwork and says he can’t get to it today. She offers to fix it herself. The mechanic takes off his glasses, looks her up and down incredulously, pauses for a long time and says, “Well, if you think you can do it, go ahead and try. But if it’s not done in ten minutes I won’t have time to inspect your truck, either.” She marches out to the shop and asks a male shop assistant, who is her age, to borrow some tools. She grits her teeth as she remembers applying for that job and how proud the mechanic must have been for not laughing her out of his office.
Now, time to face the truck. With absolutely no idea how to remove the broken taillight, Sierra gnaws on her fingernails for the next nine minutes and tries pulling apart different seams, opening and closing the tailgate. Nothing works. She is contemplating smashing the old light out with a mallet when the mechanic walks up. With a long sigh, he takes the tools and taillight out of her hands and whips off the old one with no explanation. “How did you do that?” she asks, hoping to store this information for future reference. He just gestures vaguely at the tailgate and holds out his hand for her keys. She hands them over, and he performs the inspection. When he’s done, she overhears him muttering about women and how needy they are.
She fights back the tears until she’s on the road, gripping the steering wheel like a lifeline. The truck grumbles a little – probably the catalytic converter, the mechanic had said without explanation – but otherwise performs perfectly. At least the truck doesn’t care that she’s a girl. As she waits at a stop light across from her house, a clique of rich girls in a convertible honk and tell her to get back to the farm with that tractor. She thinks about backing up into them, but cares about her truck too much. As she turns off the truck, scales the front steps and slams the door, her father calls out, “Did you pass?” She yells back, “Yeah,” without further comment. It’s just not worth it.
The next day, she tells her mother the story and the whole truth comes out. Her father launches into a screaming fit. “How dare you go to a place like that without telling me?” She’s grounded. Next year, he does the inspection for her. Apparently, the truck needs serious repair. He fixes it himself while she’s at work. She never even knows that it was broken.
Long story short, I would have killed for the opportunities that Sentell calls obstacles. To be able to walk into a mechanic’s shop and be taken seriously? To get honest answers without odes to my breasts or off-color jokes? To go to places like the junkyard without worrying about sexual assault or expecting harassment? To be lent tools, to have someone actually show me how to fix something on my car? To have a mechanic for once acknowledge that automotive knowledge doesn’t flow from the testicles and must be taught? To be able to bother a mechanic on break, as Sentell did, and not to be sternly told to wait in the lobby until he’s finished watching reruns of Frasier, sweetheart? To have a car in the first place? Where are the obstacles here? This all sounds like smooth sailing to me.
This is, of course, to say nothing of Sentell’s conclusion:
Fathers may have to shoulder most of this responsibility. In general, mothers tend to be more relationship-oriented and thus more nurturing. I don’t see most moms parenting as “obstacle courses” anytime soon, and I’m not even sure that they should. Children need support as well as challenges.
This is what some of us call “soft sexism.” And here is my response: I might be a mother someday. I might even fit your “relationship-oriented and thus more nurturing” paradigm. But you know what? It’s not just in my genes. It’s not who I am naturally. It’s a result of the fact that every other door has been repeatedly slammed in my face. People keep slamming them, even though as an adult I have more power in these situations. Now I can enroll in automotive classes and nobody can legally deny my registration due to my sex, although I do expect to deal with a lot of sexism in the classroom and beyond. Now I can pick mechanics who don’t insult me, although it takes a lot of time and research to find them and sometimes I’m steered wrong by women with lower expectations. Now I can lift weights (the subject of a future post, I’m sure), but I still get stares, passive aggressive crowding out and unnecessary “help” from guys in the gym.
Men often complain that women just can’t understand their interest in cars. Here’s my answer to them: What have you done lately to make learning about them more appealing to women? How many little girls have you mentored? Do you just fix things for your wives, girlfriends or daughters without involving them in the process? Do you ever take the time to explain to them why you like cars (no, “I’m a dude” doesn’t count)? Do you joke with other men about mechanical ineptitude in women? Have you taken a young man under your wing and showed him how to change his tires, but described it as “male bonding time” and left his sister out? When you talk about going out with your wife or girlfriend in a sports car, do you assume you’ll be driving? Do you assume that women like sitting on the backs of motorcycles better than actually driving them? When a little girl tells you, “cars are boring,” do you try to prove her wrong?
I have loved cars all my life. I even like the ridiculous subculture of cars: the technological competition, the useless features, the unscathed metal and six-speeds that make my palms sweat. I don’t like how the only women at those events are making ass prints on the trunk and scratching the paint with their sequined bikinis. But the cars themselves? To die for. But I’m an outsider because men force me to be one. Not even just the system. Not just the patriarchy. Actual men, who are totally blind to the idea that a girl could have an interest in motors and the skill to take them apart and put them together herself, who keep on keeping me down with their words. In short, we live in a culture in which men refuse to teach girls about cars, then make fun of them as women for not knowing about cars. Guys, I think better of you than this. Quit shutting us out!
Eric Sentell, I don’t believe your story has anything to do with “self-reliance” or “independence.” Your hand was held the entire time. You just didn’t even notice it because it’s never not been there.