Be a good girl, now
Rethinking the reasons we raise our daughters to be “nice”, and what this means for our sons
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