Empower your children :: Sarah Bessey

When I got my drivers license at 16 years old, my dad and mum bought us two girls a 1979 Ford half-ton. Our truck was brown, it weighed more than a building, and we named him Frank the Gas Monster. I went to work at a little retail store in the mall 20 hours a week while in high school because we were expected to put gas in Frank  – no small task with dual gas tanks. (Yes, we lived in Alberta and old trucks were cheap back then, how did you guess?)

Since I was the only driver until my sister got her license, I had to shuttle my sister around, too – which wasn’t a problem since we were close in age, best friends, and we had the same social circle. I drove us to school, to church, to youth group events, to parties, to camping trips with our friends, out on double dates with our boyfriends.

Having a kid who drives is convenient for a busy family, absolutely. And it was great to have wheels. But the main reason why my parents made sure we had a vehicle?

They wanted us to be in charge of our own selves.

They were determined that we would never be reliant on anyone else for a ride home, especially not a date, especially if a date went bad. If we ever wanted to leave a party early, we got to leave when we wanted to leave. They knew we could be counted on to drive safely: it wasn’t an option for us to be getting into a car with God knows who driving like a bat out of hell.

They were determined that their girls would be in charge of their own agency and mobility at all times.

Having our own truck was empowering. 

Over and over throughout my childhood and girlhood, my parents intentionally empowered us to be in charge of our own lives.

I’ve thought about Frank the Gas Monster a lot over the past few years but particularly right now when the Duggar story is bringing a much-needed light onto the truth and consequences of patriarchal culture, particularly on women. And when you write a book like Jesus Feminist, you become privy to a lot of women’s tender stories. In the past few years, through email and in person, I’ve been honoured to hear from women all around the world, desperate to share their precious stories with someone. And so often their stories break my heart.

So many of the women I hear from grew up in that sort of Duggar-ish patriarchal church culture that did the very opposite of my parents. Instead of empowering their girls, they dis-empowered them. Well-meaning authority figures often removed their agency, their mobility, their independence, isolating them and then shackling them into dependence on the good will of the men in their life. Children were controlled, women were subservient to men, and the consequences aren’t hard to figure out.

I can’t tell you how many women I hear from who are trapped in abusive or unhealthy or broken homes but feel unable to leave because they simply have no way to support themselves or their children. And when life hasn’t turned out according to the “Master Plan,” they are filled with despair and crippled. Their lives are still dependent on the good will of a man. That theology might work okay when everything is perfect and everyone is doing what they are supposed to do, but let’s be honest: life happens. And if that good will departed for one reason or another, they were devastated, of course, but now they were also on a steep learning curve. No credit cards, no education (often homeschooled), no drivers license, lots of small children, and so on. The consequences of this damaging theology are legion but lately I’ve been reminded afresh just how much of a price women pay when they are kept powerless. (As a note, I am not an expert on patriarchal church culture at all but if you are looking for a place of support, I’ve heard excellent things about Recovering Grace.)

Now, my parents have always had a strong, beautiful marriage based on mutuality. And sure, like most parents, they wanted us to experience the love of another person, to get married, have children. They fully expected that to happen.

But they made sure we were able to take care of ourselves, too.

If we ever got married, it was going to be because we wanted to, not because we had to.

And if we ever wanted or needed to leave a marriage, we would be able to do so. If our husbands left us or, God forbid, died, we would be okay for the practical work of running our lives and caring for our children even if our hearts were broken.

We were empowered from a young age to make our own decisions and to own our own lives.

There were other ways that my parents were very intentional about empowering us girls. Their expectations were high for school and work ethic. We were expected to get jobs if we wanted spending money. If we struggled in school, we were expected to show up for extra tutoring and studying until we figured it out (chemistry was nearly the death of me). We were expected to go on to university after high school – even though that wasn’t their own path. We were expected to earn scholarships to help pay for our own education, this was no free ride. We were expected to study a discipline that would get us into a career that could pay the bills.

Most importantly, we were given freedom to fail when the stakes were low. We could make a few bad decisions with our independence because their reasoning was that it was better to fail while they were there to help pick up the pieces than to send us out into the world for the first shot at failure.

Those years at home are practice for an independent life after home.

My own tinies are still quite small but I do keep the idea of empowerment close by as we raise them. Right now that looks different than a big brown Ford truck obviously but we find age-appropriate ways to encourage independence.

I’m learning to keep my eye on the long-game: I’m not managing children, I’m raising children into capable and compassionate adults. I’m not doing the tinies any favours to keep them dependent on me for everything from laundry to food, learning to relationships. Teaching responsibility and encouraging independence takes longer to teach, and it requires a tremendous amount of faith to take the risk of setting them free to make mistakes, but it is so worth it. That big ugly brown truck is my shorthand to remember that I need to empower my children to be independent and own their lives.

Keeping our children powerless does not do them any favours.


This post is part of an ongoing series about the lessons I picked up from my own parents about parenting


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  • Great post, Sarah. Thank you.

    I have no experience with the patriarchal culture you’re talking about but it doesn’t sound right. On the other hand, I’ve suffered more from the misconceptions that I learned thanks to feminism than anything else, I think. And I still see damage going on because of what looks like a female superiority complex that’s afflicting society.

    There must be a middle ground. Maybe it’s in your book? I haven’t read much here yet but I’m intrigued by your title and inclined to read more. 🙂

    • Iryssa

      Colleen, I’ve had the same experience as you there! I grew up in a family with strong women, in churches where women were outspoken and strong, and honestly in my life I saw a lot more women putting down their husbands and tearing guys in general apart than I saw men being oppressive. I did eventually move to an area where things were still male-dominated, though honestly I still didn’t see a lot of it on a personal level because I think most of those types that would have tried to oppress me just learned to avoid me (those types of people that would dominate someone else are actually very often fundamentally insecure). I’ve really come to see it as a humanity-issue. It’s been honestly difficult finding those that make that middle ground, but I think what you’ll find here are that people are actually seeking out equality in a way that is constructive, not trying to oppress anyone 🙂

      • Thank you for your reply, Iryssa. I think you’re right. It is a humanity issue. Or a sin issue. Afterall, it does say that we will desire to control our husbands but that they will rule over us, as a result of the fall. But it’s foolish to bank on our men being there and doing a good job of leading our households for our entire lives. We need to be prepared for the eventuality of failed or absent leadership. But we also need to put the breaks on the women trying to control the men. Neither one is right. And these days, I’m seeing more disrespect towards men than dis-empowerment of women.
        I guess that makes me blessed? Perhaps. Because I’m not being oppressed and have the luxury of fine tuning the balance of leadership in our family to teach something that respects all members.
        This post really made me think! 😀

  • Iryssa

    ” We could make a few bad decisions with our independence because their reasoning was that it was better to fail while they were there to help pick up the pieces than to send us out into the world for the first shot at failure.”
    THIS. Oh my word, THIS.

    I noticed it the first time with my (6 and 7yo) kids’ piano practices. I used to (and still sometimes do if they ask me, but they do that mostly when they’re feeling cuddly 😉 ) turn the pages of the book for them, point to the notes (which was something we were *supposed* to do in their preschool-age class and I’d just never given it up), and generally hover while they practiced to keep them on task. But one day I got busy. The phone rang, there was someone coming over and I HAD to finish folding the laundry, you know how it is…and it was the best thing that ever happened. I came back into the room and they were doing AWESOME! It was this lightbulb moment, “hang on, they’re doing it all on their own! They’re taking turns, my son is actually LEARNING the piece instead of waiting for me to say a note name here and there! They’re correcting themselves, and best of all, they’re NOT getting frustrated!”

    It hit me then that by hovering and doing things for them that I was actually sending them the message **that I didn’t have confidence in them.**
    Oh my heart hurt so badly.

    Really, I can’t believe it took so long for me to figure it out, but things have been SOO much better since I have. Naturally, the freedoms/responsibilities (because they’re one and the same) I give my kids are age- and maturity-level-appropriate. And yes, they do trip up. But you know what else I noticed? They’re gaining confidence SO much faster than when I was hovering and hand-holding. People (like the new-to-us Sunday School teacher this past Sunday) have started to comment on how self-assured and mature they are, where before I DREADED “that look” from teachers when they said “can I talk to you after everyone’s gone?”

    • Wow, that is SUCH a good point! That convicts me.

  • This brings to mind two things. My parents had a big old 1985 Dodge van that I became the primary driver of when I turned 16. (My mom walked a block to work). She was happy to not have to shuttle me and my younger brother to track practice (5 miles from school) and my music lessons which were 45 minutes away.
    I’m pretty independent now, sometimes to the detriment of my marital relationship, but it also helps because he’s a very non linear person so I keep the family on track.
    As I watch my dad failing (Parkinson’s) and my mom be almost frozen at times having to make decisions she hasn’t in 40+ years it’s hard. They had a pretty mutual relationship, but I think she didn’t keep up on a lot of things because dad took care of them. Good and bad.
    On the other hand, her sister, my aunt, lived with the most controlling spouse that never even let her get her driver’s license. We had so little relationship with her and my cousins. And I’m sure she couldn’t leave because he poisoned the relationship with my grandma. (Things I’ve learned as an adult) It’s so important for women to be able to stand up for themselves to prevent all kinds of abuse, personal or even systemic.

    • Great points, Krista – thanks for sharing this.

  • Sarah Scott

    A thousand Amens! Well done Sarah’s parents! I think I am going to love this series.

  • Leigh

    I recently spoke with the mom of one of my daughter’s friends; when I asked her what colleges her daughter was considering (they’re juniors) she said, “Oh, we really don’t put much emphasis on that; we’re raising our three girls to be good wives and mothers!”

    I blacked out for a second there, but I managed to recover enough to say, “Well, I’ve known far too many good wives and mothers whose husbands have died, become disabled, got laid off, or decided they didn’t want to be married anymore, so I’m raising MY girls to be able to support themselves.”

    I mean, honestly–that’s just willful blindness, and they’re doing their daughters such a disservice by not preparing them for life’s possibilities. And what if they don’t WANT to be wives, or mothers? Ugh.

    • Iryssa

      I once dated a guy whose mom hadn’t taught her sons to do laundry because in their house the women (including his two sisters) did it. I honestly spent a good part of the relationship not knowing that there was laundry in his building and thinking he took it home to save on quarters. lol Yeah…no. There was free laundry, and he wasn’t taking it home and doing it himself! I definitely dodged a bullet when I ended that one.

      • Leigh

        Bullet dodged, indeed! You might have been able to retrain him, but who would want that job on top of all the laundry? 😛

    • Yes, a very common attitude for some. And even shortsighted. Think of all the women who do become wives and mothers but eventually they have an empty nest or become a widow. Then what? You’re right, it is a disservice. Let alone all the other richness that independence brings to us – new skills, new people, sense of accomplishment etc.

  • Michelle Luck

    Beautifully written. This is a beautiful reflection, and I’m sure that being aware of how parenting choices shaped you will be a gift in the way you raise your daughters – and your son. I’ve always considered myself to be a self-sufficient, independent and capable woman, and pride myself on those traits. While I’m conscious of the flip side of those qualities (bossy, control-freak, at times patronising to people who aren’t as self-sufficient) I have three young daughters and I am keen that they will also be empowered. Letting go of control is something I need to be intentional about, as it is in my nature to do it for them because it will be ‘quicker’ and ‘better’, but I am trying.
    Encouraging practical responsibility (picking up after themselves, getting themselves dressed etc) has been quite easy so far, and so most of my intentional parenting has been around teaching them to be confident and independent in negotiating relationships and solving conflicts. I’ve also found it is more difficult to encourage responsibility and independence in our second, two year old, daughter, as by encouraging her big sister to take responsibility we are often letting her off the hook and letting her play the ‘she’s too little’ card. So hard to find a middle ground!
    Again, though, thankyou Sarah for speaking to my heart. You are wonderful.

    • Middle ground is so hard to find! I struggle, too, with just doing things myself because it’s just easier than the alternative. Gah. and thank you!

  • Jamie

    I think the idea of allowing (low risk) failures is so important. I’m no expert either, and I don’t have kids yet, but I work for a youth-serving organization and we see how well-meaning parents are shielding their kids from any disappointment and failure nowadays and the result is children- and probably adults later on- who can’t problem solve and recover from mistakes. It’s okay to try and fail or make mistakes. It’s a great way to learn!

    • So true! And often we learn more from our mistakes or attempts.

  • Ellen

    I don’t think that “no education (often homeschooled)” is a fair or accurate statement at all and feels like an unnecessary jab. There are so many homeschoolers who are not functioning as a patriarchal or even religious family, whose purpose for homeschooling is education, empowerment, freedom, and teaching self-responsibility. “Lots of small children” also seems a little inflammatory. To be clear – I agree with the message that you are saying completely, and though I’m not a homeschool mom and I only have 2 small children I still felt led to defend those homeschool moms of lots of kids who also agree with you. : )

    • Iryssa

      That is a fair point…though in fairness to Ms. Bessey as well I don’t think that she’s saying all homeschool families are like that or even that all homeschooling results in a lack of education. Rather, she’s saying that many SUCH families DO use homeschooling as a tool to keep their kids in an oppressive culture, using it to *shelter* their girls and keep them shut-in as opposed to using it as an opportunity to take them out and learn *more*. I’ve seen both families who use it to shelter/oppress and families who genuinely give their kids a better, more varied education with it. But yeah, I can totally see how those statements could be seen as inflammatory.

    • It wasn’t meant as a jab, just sharing what I personally hear from women who have reached out. After all, I have lots of small children myself – and I even homeschooled! It was meant more as a descriptor – and yes, some cultures do use those two things as a way of isolating women even further though.

      • Angie

        I am a homeschool mom and I didn’t feel jabbed. But I’m glad the comment is being addresses because some moms might take it the wrong way. It’s true that in some families homeschooling is a tool for keeping them too close. I’ve certainly seen it a lot. As soon as I read this I did some mental inventory to see if there was anything that my kids are missing by not going to school. I grew up in the patriarchal atmosphere, not Duggar patriarchal but still very male dominated. My husband, who came to Christ as an adult has told me it’s wrong for years. He just can’t get behind the idea. As I was reading your book I kept reading passages to him and he would just smile. He has never wanted a wife who would follow his lead, he just wants a strong woman at his side.

  • Kristin Lee Williams

    I am struggling with encouraging independence with one of my children right now. She’s the oldest (almost 9) but doesn’t want to be independent in many ways. My younger is all about doing things himself and being left alone to figure things out but the older wants me near at all times. I wonder when to push her into new things and when to let her be. I remember thinking parenting would get easier, I remember specifically thinking that the older elementary years would be best because they’d be older but not too old. Now I realize how naive I was…I don’t think it ever gets easier!

    • Isn’t that the truth. I remember hearing someone say once that the little years are physically demanding – no sleep, require lots of help to do everything etc. – but that the later years are spiritually and emotionally demanding. I’ve found that to be true, too.

  • Amy Dahlgren Campbell

    This is something I have been struggling with concerning my self and my da

  • Victoria

    As someone who was raised in the patriarchal culture, this feels so encouraging to realize that this can be done. I grew up with so many mantras that were demeaning to women – women shouldn’t go to college, women are more easily deceived, women were created to be submissive, etc. I’ve spent the last two years leaving that culture and though I’m definitely out of it now, I still see it harming family members and friends, and from time to time I still have to deal with the mindsets that I had for most of my life. For both my husband and I, empowering women and other minority groups has become so important.

    I haven’t written a letter but I definitely could have – Jesus Feminist was one of the first books I read, I think right after I finished A Year of Biblical Womanhood. It was pretty revolutionary for me at that point. I’ve heartily recommended it many times since then.

  • Emily Leigh

    Amen! I want my children to own their own lives both the boys and the girl. I had to buy my own first vehicle and have been struggling with the idea that we will be wealthy enough (and my husband prefers) to provide a vehicle for them when it is time for that. But your reasonings really help me move to his decision on vehicles. I want them to have the power to leave anywhere at anytime.