Why I Don’t Call My Daughter a Tomboy

August 12, 2014

As a proud father of a 4-year-old daughter named Kennedy, I am becoming more aware of the issues that could affect her down the road. I’ll admit that prior to being employed with an organization that fights to empower women, the plight of women was not a daily focus of mine.

But as I learn more about the work of AAUW — from closing the gender wage gap to fighting stereotypes — and the problems that could potentially affect Kennedy, I find myself more fully engaged in the ongoing conversations around these important topics. I hope this knowledge will in turn make me a better father to my daughter.

A young girl plays with a ball in the grass

My daughter, Kennedy, playing soccer

I’ve recently discovered that Kennedy has a natural knack for soccer. I often say that she is going to be “a hell of a goalie one day!” She received a soccer practice set for her birthday, which we assembled in our backyard.

A relative saw her natural ability and referred to her as a “tomboy,” a term that immediately didn’t sit well with me. In the past I’ve used the term to refer to my friends, not thinking anything of it. Now as a father, I realize that language has power, and such labels can discourage young girls from becoming active in sports.

Research shows that more than 80 percent of women executives played sports growing up. I wonder how many of those women were referred to as tomboys early on and if they were affected by labels that insinuated they weren’t acting like “proper” girls.

I’ve raised this issue on a Facebook group for fathers of daughters (aka FODers), a space where dads go to share insight about parenting girls. We are committed to raising well-balanced girls who are confident and successful in all of their interests.

Many girls are athletic. Why does there have to be a special term to describe them? I fear that using a word like tomboy to describe my daughter will make her think that her interests aren’t normal for girls — that they’re boyish.

Ultimately, we all need to be mindful of the power of language that is used to refer to young girls, especially early in life. Subconsciously, we may be perpetuating a gender bias that could kill the fuse before it’s sparked. Let’s encourage the future Mia Hamms,  Mae Jemisons, and Sheryl Sandbergs.

This post was written by AAUW Project and Expediting Manager Lamont Thompson.

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  1. Avatar Diane Sakmar says:

    Twenty-five years ago, when my daughter was in kindergarten, she completed a simple template autobiography, filling in the blanks with a few insights about herself. In the sentence “I am _______,” she filled in “an athlete.” She had been in gymnastics for 2 years, and I was thrilled that she saw herself in that light. No one had introduced her to the term “tomboy,” and she was proud and confident because of her athletic skill.

  2. Avatar Amy Blackwell says:

    Thanks for this blog post, Lamont! We need more men of good conscience. like you, to advance equity for women and girls.

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