Be a good girl, now

Re­think­ing the rea­sons we raise our daugh­ters to be “nice”, and what this means for our sons

Your Baby & Toddler - - Must Reads - By Mar­got Ber­tels­mann

In the 1920s Amer­i­can food writer Clemen­tine Pad­dle­ford had some wise words: “Never grow a wish­bone, daugh­ter, where your back­bone ought to be.” It’s 2015, and on pa­per, men and women have been equal – be­fore the law, in our Con­sti­tu­tion – for decades. But prac­tice lags be­hind the­ory. Women face dis­crim­i­na­tion: un­equal pay and ca­reer ad­vance­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties, sex­ual and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, and un­equal ex­pec­ta­tions of gen­der roles and child­care come to mind.

Ex­plor­ing the divide

Is it pos­si­ble the way we par­ent con­trib­utes to this in­equal­ity be­tween the sexes? Of course! Laura Berk notes in her 1991 book Child Devel­op­ment that boys were praised more for knowl­edge and ac­com­plish­ment, and girls for obe­di­ence. Girls ob­served in stud­ies played co­op­er­a­tively and qui­etly more than boys, who ap­peared more as­sertive and ac­tive. Meta-analy­ses of hun­dreds of stud­ies into the dif­fer­ences be­tween girls and boys show that the ac­tual dif­fer­ences be­tween the gen­ders are rel­a­tively small – way out of step with the em­pha­sis our so­ci­ety (par­ents and teach­ers, mar­keters and moviemak­ers) – puts on gen­der dif­fer­ence. It’s mostly us who teach chil­dren to adopt gen­der roles.

Chil­dren are taught from their ear­li­est years that the most im­por­tant distinc­tion is be­tween boys and girls. With their sim­plest greet­ing (“Good morn­ing, boys and girls”) our teach­ers tell our chil­dren daily that gen­der is the cru­cial distinc­tion – and that boys come first. Mar­keters of chil­dren’s prod­ucts seize upon this distinc­tion with mis­sion­ary zeal to sell the max­i­mum amount of stuff to the largest num­ber of young con­sumers – even choco­late eggs now come in “boy” and “girl” ver­sions… The stan­dard con­ver­sa­tional gam­bit of an adult to a girl she’s meet­ing for the first time? “What a pretty dress!” (The im­plicit mes­sage: “Your ap­pear­ance is para­mount.”) Boys just don’t rou­tinely re­ceive per­sonal-ap­pear­ance com­pli­ments like that.

Even the most gen­der­con­scious par­ent, who thinks they are rais­ing their girls and boys equally, may un­con­sciously have dif­fer­ent ex­pec­ta­tions of them. Imag­ine the sce­nario: There’s a child in your child’s preschool who is con­stantly snatch­ing away other chil­dren’s toys – aha! That brat has just beaten your child on the head with the plas­tic spade. What do you do?

The anec­dote turns into a “choose your own end­ing” story, be­cause chances are if your child is a girl, you’ll teach her one re­sponse and if he’s a boy, a dif­fer­ent one al­to­gether. Tra­di­tion­ally, boys’ play­ground scraps are dis­missed with a shrug, eye roll and a “boys will be boys”, and they are far more likely to be en­cour­aged to phys­i­cally de­fend them­selves than girls are. In stark con­trast, co­op­er­a­tive­ness and non­vi­o­lence are fore­grounded as de­sir­able at­tributes for girls. “Be nice” trumps “be strong”. Many of us do not teach our girls to be as­sertive or pro­tect them­selves.

Even par­ents who value gen­der equal­ity find that sim­ple play­ground con­flicts are any­thing but sim­ple. Ex­plains fa­ther Lukanyo Mnyanda: “My Sihle went through a phase of hit­ting other kids at nurs­ery school. My in­stinct was to laugh out loud! ( Of course we have since em­pha­sised to her the need to com­mu­ni­cate rather than lash out.) But her gen­der was the rea­son that I wasn’t too harsh. I fig­ure the world is a tough place for girls and women, so part of me is more than com­fort­able with her as­sert­ing her­self.”

Girls are be­ing guided ei­ther to fan or ex­tin­guish (and usu­ally to ex­tin­guish) their as­sertive­ness, boys to ex­ag­ger­ate (or oc­ca­sion­ally to sup­press) their de­sire for a day­care toy, at least in part be­cause of their par­ents’ at­ti­tudes to gen­der. It’s a com­plex web. But while we don’t want to dis­count how pleas­ant “fem­i­nine” at­tributes can be (who doesn’t en­joy a po­lite, con­sid­er­ate per­son?), em­pha­sis­ing tra­di­tional roles can some­times be harm­ful – to girls as well as boys.

When good man­ners are danger­ous West­ern popular cul­ture over­whelm­ingly val­ues women’s abil­ity to please men (for in­stance with their bod­ies and their sex­ual ac­qui­es­cence

– a glance at any mu­sic video will il­lus­trate this). Gen­der ac­tivist Lisa Vet­ten, who is a re­search as­so­ciate at the Wits In­sti­tute for So­cial and Eco­nomic Re­search, says that girls’ de­sire to please and be liked can en­cour­age the sort of ru­mi­na­tion in adult­hood that’s as­so­ci­ated with de­pres­sion, and she feels girls must be en­cour­aged to be less de­pen­dent on what oth­ers think of them.

When pleas­ant­ness be­comes the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic for girls and women in our so­ci­ety, we run the risk of de­mand­ing “po­lite­ness” from our daugh­ters even when it en­dan­gers them. As Catherine New­man pas­sion­ately ar­gues in a blog post ti­tled I Do Not Want My Daugh­ter To Be ‘Nice’, pub­lished on the Moth­er­lode blog as part of the New York Times on­line: “Do I think it is a good idea for girls to en­gage with zeal­ously leer­ing men, like the creepy guy in the hard­ware store who is telling her how pretty she is? I do not. ‘Say thank you to the nice man who wolf-whis­tled!’ ‘Smile at the frat boy who’s date-rap­ing you!’ I want my daugh­ter to be tough, to say no [...] I don’t want her to ac­com­mo­date and please. I don’t want her to wear her good na­ture like a gem­stone, her body like an or­na­ment.” But to achieve this, the au­thor her­self notes the dif­fi­culty of let­ting go of in­ter­nalised ex­pec­ta­tions that a girl “should”, above all, be “nice”.

Too many moth­ers read­ing this will re­mem­ber that their own early sex­ual ex­pe­ri­ences were not freely cho­sen – a 2001 Med­i­cal Re­search Coun­cil study by Jewkes et al found that 32 per­cent of preg­nant teens ques­tioned said their first sex­ual con­tact was forced.

Thirty per­cent! You don’t want that for your daugh­ter. Rather al­low her the plea­sure of say­ing “no”. It is far more im­por­tant to raise a girl who can as­sert her­self, even if it comes across as abrupt, than one who en­dures abuse in the in­ter­ests of like­abil­ity. And if you want your daugh­ter one day to choose a life part­ner or hus­band who re­spects her as an equal, you might do well not to teach her to sub­ju­gate her­self now.

The work­ing world

When she’s grown, would you like your daugh­ter to have a ca­reer, if she chooses it? Or at least the choice to have a ca­reer? And if she works for money, would you like her to re­ceive the same pay for the same work as a man, and be pro­moted at the same pace?

Well, sorry. Chances are that’s not go­ing to hap­pen. Ac­cord­ing to the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum Global Gen­der Gap 2009 re­port, the gen­der pay gap in South Africa is 33.5 per­cent, and 22.4 per­cent glob­ally. That means that world­wide women earn 22 per­cent less than men.

In her book Nice Girls Don’t Get The Cor­ner Of­fice, Lois Frankel lists 130 mis­takes women make that widen the gap. Her ex­am­ples in­clude: tak­ing dis­pro­por­tion­ately many tasks, not in­sist­ing on be­ing recog­nised for ideas but pre­sent­ing them as “team work”, and many oth­ers along the same theme of, ba­si­cally, be­ing too nice. It is a fact that women have to be as­sertive with a se­cure sense of self in or­der to de­mand equal treat­ment in the work­place. By less­en­ing your fo­cus on your daugh­ter be­ing “nice”, you are quite likely help­ing pro­mote her and up­ping her fu­ture salary. Pretty con­vinc­ing, huh? YB

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