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Shannon Sutherland Headshot

Don't Shhh My Daughter

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My daughter loves bus rides. When you are on a subway you're underground with windows that peer into darkness. Not so on a bus. A bus gives even the littlest New Yorkers a wonderful view of the city without being blocked by the legs and waists of pesky adults.

The second we get on a bus, my daughter starts singing "The Wheels on the Bus." Suddenly, she will get distracted by something exciting, like a green tree, the blue sky or a cute puppy. And do you want to know what the best part of all this is? She can say the names of all these exciting objects and explain them to me in great detail. After two years of crying and hoping her clueless parents could figure out what she wanted, she now has a voice and she wants to use it all the time and very loudly.

My husband and I find it endearing until she wakes us up at 2 a.m. because she has decided she would like to got to a baseball game and see a boat, now. She'll throw a temper tantrum when she finds out she has to go back to bed without getting to go to Yankee Stadium on a boat. It's exhausting, but what can we do? We want to raise our daughter to be a strong woman, so we figure this is just a part of the process.

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When we go out in public, many people smile at my daughter's enthusiasm to see and do new things. Some people even get involved and scream back, "Wow, you are right, the clouds are pretty!" For the most part, the reactions from our fellow bus riders are positive, but every once in a while, we meet someone who is less-than-enthused by my daughter's new-found love of language.

One day, a very modern-looking woman with a tote filled with books featuring strong heroines sat next to us on the bus. She had just seen Bette Midler's new Broadway show and couldn't believe how bad it was. She said it was hard to understand what Bette Midler was saying because she ate her words onstage. It makes her sick that in 2013, accomplished women still turn into little girls when they speak. Women need to speak in clear and grounded voices. I couldn't agree more. I was about to join in on this inspirational conversation when she did the unthinkable. She turned to my 2-year-old daughter and said, "Shhh act like a lady!"

My daughter collapsed back into her seat and began to cry. She couldn't understand what she had done wrong. She was just singing a song about the green grass in the park. I turned to the woman and thought well, maybe the reason Bette Midler ate her words onstage is because some mean old lady shhhed her as a child. Maybe if she had been encouraged to speak just as much and as loudly as boys you would have been able to understand her. Maybe you should shut up and leave the parenting to me... her actual parent! But I didn't say any of those things. I apologized and tried my best to keep my daughter quiet.

See, I was raised in a community where boys were always called on in class before girls. When girls got in trouble, they were punished. When boys did the same thing, teachers smiled and said, "Boys will be boys." My school spent thousands of dollars on pep rallies for a mediocre football team but when a girls' team won state, it went unnoticed. I have been shhhed all my life, so when it came time to stand up for my daughter, I shhhed myself.

As a writer, feminist and mother I am constantly asking my friends and myself how we can raise our daughters to grow up to be strong women. I don't know the answer, but I have found out where the shhing starts and as a woman who has spent most of her adult life fighting to unshhh herself, I know the result. I was a child, he was an adult, and he raped me. It didn't even occur to me to say no because I didn't feel like I was allowed to. Of course I never told anyone. After repeatedly being shhhed for arbitrary things I never got the chance to practice speaking up for myself. So, when I needed to say no or ask for help I shhhd myself.

So, next time you see a loud toddler girl on the bus, before you get annoyed, think about what it must feel like to be her. She's discovering language for the first time. It feels awesome to finally vocalize her thoughts and share them with the world. And maybe that fountain you just passed really is the coolest fountain in the world. That little girl is so excited about talking she can't control her voice and yes, it can be annoying at times. If you can't handle her loud voice, move to the other side of the bus, put on headphones or get off at the next stop and take a taxi. But whatever you do, don't shhh her. She's learning to use her voice so she can grow up to be a strong woman. And who knows? Maybe she grows up to be the next Wendy Davis and uses the practice she got on a New York City bus to stand up for your rights during an 11-hour filibuster.