My Daughter, Virginia Woolf, and Kids Disagreeing With Their Parents

by John Ellis

For a project in high school, I wrote an editorial calling for my school to drop the school uniform policy in favor of a policy allowing students to wear the clothes of their choice (with the understanding that there would still be a dress code). Since my school didn’t teach rhetoric and logic (or, really, much of anything[1]), my arguments were flimsy and poorly articulated. While writing it, though, I was smart enough to realize that I was touching a third rail. I attempted a tone of light heartedness and tried to avoid saying things in ways that could be perceived as a direct challenge to the overall authority structure of the school. I don’t remember the grade I received. However, I do remember the tongue lashing I was given for my bad attitude and the accompanying lecture about how rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.

In college, at Bob Jones University, in one of my English classes, I argued that since we read stories that included things like patricide, incest, and gouging your own eyes out, we should be allowed to watch the movie Se7en. Thinking back on it, my arguments were actually fairly sound, both theologically and aesthetically. Never mind that, though. My argument earned me a trip to the Dean of Men’s office where I was forced to listen to a lecture about objectionable elements, holiness, and the dangers to my soul presented by pop culture and Hollywood in general. I escaped without earning demerits, but still, the message was clear: Do not voice opinions or make arguments that do not fall within a very narrow range of acceptability. To be clear, that “range of acceptability” wasn’t really a range but rather allowed variations and perspectives on the uniform belief(s) that we were expected to hold and live out. For example, it was okay to ask why we read Oedipus Rex considering the sinful things that take place in the play, but we weren’t allowed to challenge the prescribed doctrine of objectionable elements (unless, of course, we were arguing that it’s not strict enough).

Well, today, my daughter, who is in 10th grade, is presenting her speech on a section lifted from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. For those who are familiar with the series of lectures that Woolf delivered and then turned into a book, know that I do not agree with everything that Woolf argued for, especially what she argued implicitly in certain sections. Infinity and I have discussed the speech, including the things I believe are contrary to what I believe the Bible teaches. However, my wife and I have communicated to her (and to our son) that we do not expect her to hold to our beliefs merely because we do and that she’s allowed to disagree with us, as long as she does so respectfully.  

With her intro, before she reads the selected section of Woolf’s speech to the class, Infinity is taking the opportunity to piggyback off Woolf’s arguments to make the argument that the teachers at her school have a responsibility to introduce the students to female writers and thinkers instead of just white men by providing the voices of those female writers and thinkers a platform within her and her classmates education. While I have some profound disagreements with the school (my kids and I have interesting discussions after school about what they “learned” in history that day), I am thankful that the school isn’t afraid (at least on the surface) of dissenting voices and arguments that challenge the beliefs and philosophy of the school’s authority structure. That being said, I am also aware that the majority of the school’s community (including parents) is steeped in the Christian nationalism of white evangelicalism. While her academic career will not be affected by her speech, I can’t help but wonder how the rest of her existential experience for her final two and a half years at the school is going to be shaped by today (or whenever she gives the speech, she wasn’t sure if she delivers the speech today or just hands it in). No matter what happens, though, I am proud of her. And while I do happen to agree with her beliefs and arguments in this speech, I do not have to agree with her to be proud of her.

If there’s a point to all this, besides bragging on my daughter, it’s this: Parents (as well as teachers, youth pastors, etc.) allow your kids to disagree with you. Give them that space and freedom. Because they do disagree with you. More than you realize. I’m not naïve enough to think that my kids have expressed everything they believe I’m wrong about. No matter how scary it might be to hear your child express a disagreement with something that you hold dearly, I promise you that if you don’t have that discussion with them, they are going to have it with someone else, if they haven’t already. More than any other time in history, children have access to information and voices that challenge everything that their parents believe (and this applies to atheist parents, Muslim parents, Democrats, Republicans, etc.). Open and honest dialogue is one of the most important tools that parents have to deepen and, at times, preserve their relationship with their kids. All we can do for our kids is to love them and pray for them. We cannot force them to become the person we want. Attempting to do so will likely result in fractured relationships and children who are broken and hurting in ways that they didn’t need to be; that’s not love.

[1] Typing class my senior year was a notable exception. And the semester that two college students from Northland did their student teaching internship at my high school. They had actual standards they had to teach and professors who had expectations about what and how they were teaching. Other than that, I didn’t have to open a book to make the honor roll. And my grammar are still suffered from it.

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