A few weeks ago, my four year old, Esmé, and I were walking home from the library and stopped to say hi to our neighbor, Ann. After a few minutes, Esmé got tired of chatting and told me that we must now go inside. Not finished listening to Ann's news, I said that I wasn't ready to go inside. Exasperated, Esmé turned away, marched up to our front door, and yelled, "I'm going inside to play." Exit Miss Esmé.
I was a little embarrassed by Esmé’s abruptness. Ann, however, smiled and said, "Thank goodness for feisty girls. I hope my son marries a feisty girl." I laughed and quickly followed Esmé inside. Yet, Ann's word "feisty" kept bouncing around my mind all afternoon. I realized that I had used the same word for my 14 year old daughter, Leah, when she was in preschool. When had I stopped, and, more important, why?
I suspect I gradually did this as Leah transitioned from preschool to elementary, and onto middle school. Without noticing it, I had fallen in line with some old-fashioned notions of how girls are expected to behave at school. In a word—nice. Peers do it as well as adults. It is communicated to girls subtly and indirectly. We don't mean to, but we expect girls to be gentler, softer, kinder, and more patient. We want them to have lots of friends, for teachers to like them, and for them to feel like they belong. Sociologist Lynn Mikel Brown calls this “the tyranny of nice,” because it is so normative and confining for girls and women.
What really knocked me on my heels was, while many of my real-life and fictional heroes are feisty girls, I have not been communicating this to my daughters. I want my daughters to become women who are confident, determined, and courageous. So, I have made it a habit I tell them about women that I admire, like Dr. Helen Magill White, Ella Baker, or Maya Lin. I read books to them about the adventures and travails of characters like Ramona Quimby, Louise Kincaid, Katniss Everdeen, and Linh Cinder. Yet, I realize that I do not compliment them when they act feisty. On the contrary, I often scowl and scold. Unconsciously, I have assumed that they should be polite, obedient, and cooperative. Crazy, right?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that acting like Pipi Longstocking leads to becoming Diana Nyad or Wangari Maathai. Rather, what I am noticing is that the characteristics that I admire — boldness, independence & spunk — are not built on compliance or good manners. I hope that my daughters grow to be kind and considerate as well as audacious, but I’ve been fostering quiet and biddable.
What fosters creativity? Optimism? Autonomy? I don’t know. However, I think that I’m starting to see what doesn’t. Are my habits of hovering, rescuing and being nice going to encourage my daughters to believe in themselves or to develop empathy, meaning and belonging. My gut tells me no.
As I let all of these ideas percolate the past week, I googled “fiction” and “feisty girls”. I noticed that often younger feisty girl characters are more outspoken and bratty—Eloise, Harriet Welsh, and Mary Lenox. Why do we love them so when they flout the rules, and are selfish, prickly, or obstinate? Perhaps it is because they are also playful.
I don’t mean that they would be fun playmates but that feisty girls have a sense of playfulness that leads them to be explorers, builders, artists, and storytellers. From series about feisty girls, such as Anne of Green, we can see that feisty girls tend to lose their impulsiveness but not their zaniness, optimism, grit or zest. It might be that feisty girls go on to become more resilient, happier women because they are playful. Could it also be that their determination, courage, and self-assured comes from a sense of meaning and belonging?
In her parenting classes, school counselor Julietta Skoog begins the course with the question “What are your goals for your child?” If our goals for our girls (and our boys) is that they grow up to be resilient, persistent, creative, and brave, we might need to dig deep and think about who they are now. And how we might encourage (or inadvertently discourage) the strengths of character that they already have.
co-Chair, SEL Committee
Why do we love them so when they flout the rules, and are selfish, prickly, or obstinate? Perhaps it is because they are also playful.