Making Out: Speaking Up

About Jess

Making Out is a series centered on how Jess Burnquist, mother, writer, and teacher is "making out' as she processes adolescent issues amid the glare of parenthood and the shadows of nostalgia.

My son is on the edge of 17—an athlete and a deeply motivated student. He is ambitious, employed, handsome and thoughtful. There is not language for me to express how much I love him—how much of a privilege it is to be his mother. Seeing the world through his eyes has not only been instructive, but also inspiring. I love our differences and our commonalities.

One thing we share is our delight with language. He is intrigued by how language shapes history and justice. Like his father, he is mostly mindful about the way he speaks. Like me, he is entranced by the success of language in a great script, song, or story. And, like me, he is often aware of its shortcomings. Lately, I have become increasingly aware of how much I need to address with him the power dynamics of language.

Recently, my son had a couple of his friends over. They’re great kids. They genuinely look out for him and it’s always entertaining when they’re together— how they ramp up their word-play, teasing, and general joking. That’s why it was so difficult for me to identify the edge I felt about their goofing around that day.

Nothing out of line was being said—there were some private jokes referenced and that was completely age appropriate. Yet, I was tense. I later realized what made me bristle. Twice, my daughter tried to participate in their discussion and each time she was drowned out, ignored or interrupted. My inclination was to wave it away.

I can’t.

It’s not as simple as ‘she’s his little sister’ and he doesn’t need to include her in his friendships or discussions. It’s not. Had she been given the opportunity to say whatever possibly goofy or annoying thing she wanted to add—and had he then let her know that she could tell him later, or somehow gently redirected her, it would have perhaps escaped my notice.

It’s not as simple as ‘the girl in the room was younger and less experienced’ according to three teen boys’ perspectives.

It’s complicated because the girl in the room was sidelined.

When my son and his friends ignored my daughter, deliberately or not, it was more than a simple oversight. It shouldn’t be reduced or shrugged off because such behavior might extend beyond our home into the classroom, or the workplace or even the backseat of a car on a date night.

Broaching this topic is terrifying.

How do I point out a behavior that is practiced and supported in almost every facet of our society?

And when I do bring it up will my son perceive my concerns as valid? Will he interpret my desire to protect his sister’s voice as favoritism? How do I explain the complexities of a moment he didn’t even notice to begin with?

I want to convey it’s not that I think every woman everywhere has something worthwhile to say. I just think that every woman everywhere deserves the opportunity to say it and to be heard.

It is late as I write this. My daughter is waiting for my son because she wants to show him a funny video—she adores him. I know he’ll watch it with her and that by doing so he’ll unconsciously make her feel important. I think he is ready to understand that while he is absolutely not responsible for his sister’s self esteem her experience in the world can be drastically altered simply by listening to her.

She exists in a different reality than his. Her world is one that values her appearance more than her mind as well as one that gives more attention to her smile than her voice.

I know he’s not oblivious to some of these issues because I also overheard him say to Joey and Joaquin that it was ridiculous they couldn’t meet their best female friend, Ashley, in the park by our house because it was after dark.

He noted she wouldn’t feel nor be safe walking alone at night.

That’s not right, he said. It’s not fair.

I am confident that as my son begins to take notice of other inequities he will respond both in action and eloquence. Ultimately, I hope and believe that he will be willing to let those who need and deserve to speak do so.

* You may find archived installments of Making Out, and other work by Jess, at http://www.jessburnquist.com/.