I was once, at the school where I worked, in a meeting with a mother whose daughter was causing upset amongst the girls’ group as well as being disruptive in class. It was typical Year 6 behaviour in a way, when kids have essentially grown out of primary school and are itching to get on to the more grown-up world of secondary. Her behaviour was not unusual, just more extreme than most, and it had been going on for a long time. Her mother was very resistant to talking about it, and eventually said, with some distress and anger, ‘But I want her to be tough and speak out and stand up for herself!’ That’s when I got it. I thought to myself ‘Of course you do.’ My next thought was ‘Yeah, but she’s being a real pain…’
My daughter was a few years younger than this girl, but I recognised the dilemma. The usual lessons we want our kids to learn, about kindness and thinking of others’ feelings and being polite are the messages girls get everywhere; girls are pressured to be like that in order to gain social approval. Boys know, on the other hand, that they have social permission to be ruthless and competitive and that muscling your way to the top is both accepted and expected behaviour.
Teaching boys kindness and empathy is a relatively straightforward task for parents because we have an uncomplicated conviction in the value of those traits when it comes to boys, even if it’s in reassuring the more sensitive ones that it’s OK to be like that, it doesn’t make you less of a boy (which just goes to show the difference in the social expectations of boys compared to girls.)
When it comes to girls, it’s the opposite: we want them to be able to resist girl-socialisation and have the confidence to be competitive and assertive; to stand up for themselves and ignore the messages telling them that this behaviour is ‘unfeminine.’ But we don’t want them to be Mean Girls. I sometimes observe a kind of selfish arrogance in some young women and it doesn’t feel to me that they are exhibiting a true inner confidence and strength. I don’t want my daughter to be like that. Just how do we get the balance?
Each of my children got into trouble at primary school for pretty awful behaviour, one time each. I listened without judgment and acknowledged their side of the story every time; I’d say something like ‘Uh-huh, felt a bit unfair…’ and ‘So that all went wrong…’ And each time, once they’d calmed down, I ended the conversation with a statement along the lines of ‘Remember next time: whatever happens it is NEVER OK to shout at a teacher/disrupt a class/stop other children from learning’ and left it at that, trusting that they understood that rule.This is what I think we have to bear in mind when our daughters overstep the mark from being assertive to being obnoxious; they need to know, and it’s up to us to tell them.
The best thing we can do for our daughters (and I had a lot of opportunities to work this out for myself with my own daughter…) is to respond authentically to them when they treat us with disrespect at home. It is those times when we need to stand up for ourselves and let her know that we will not accept such treatment from anyone, but in a way which is honest and direct without trying to shame or belittle her. We also don’t need to tiptoe around her and say it apologetically or in a ‘gentle’ way, as if she’s too delicate to hear the truth. In doing so we model how to be a woman who can assert her boundaries confidently without attacking others. We’re also demonstrating how others are likely to feel about her behaviour, so she knows.
We can’t automatically take her side and support her unfailingly in everything she does either, we need to have the confidence to disagree. Otherwise, how’s she going to learn that she has the right to disagree with others, or how to do it? And we need to state our own needs and expectations clearly and directly so that she learns the skill in doing that without the need for manipulative techniques. If she imbibes all that from us, she will not need to either treat others with cruel arrogance, or play manipulative wheedling ‘feminine’ games to get her own way. We need to do all this in relationship with her, it doesn’t work if we do it in all other aspects of our lives, but let her get away with anything.
As for my own teenage daughter, I received an email from her school last week, informing me that she had missed a detention and then become ‘argumentative.’ This was the second time I’d been told of such behaviour by the school, the last time was a few months ago. I listened to my daughter’s explanations: ‘It was a few of us…we did go, but no-one was there…the teacher didn’t listen to us…’ – all the usual stuff, and I said ‘Oh OK’ and ‘Uh huh..’ with interest until she’d done. Then I thought about it and I told her ‘You know, you want to be a bit cleverer than that. A reputation for being ‘argumentative’ is not something that will help you. You want to state your case in a way that makes people feel you still respect them, because you’ll come up against a lot of people in life who you think are being unfair to you.’ I want to send her out into the world confident and assertive but I don’t want to send her out a fool.
And the girl in the school story above? She became kinder and more thoughtful; she was still confident and tough, but more respectful in the classroom and the other girls became less afraid of her. She herself was far happier in her last couple of terms at primary school. And how did we get there? We just had an honest chat.