Since I became a parent, I’ve actively encouraged both of my children to be themselves. My daughter is extremely strong-willed and outspoken, and these traits have landed her in hot water more than once. Way, way, way more than once. Leaders and bullies have similar personalities, so I work hard to encourage her to lead by example, rather than trying to make other kids do what she wants them to. She was a bossy kid from day one, and trying to channel that trait in a positive direction was a constant struggle.
She’s fourteen, and has recently become less demanding and more reasonable (except when she’s completely THE OPPOSITE. Because, teenagers.) “She’s becoming a lady”, my landlord says. A lady. Huh. In this day and age, when so many of us are trying to raise our children without imposing gender-based expectations, what does that even mean? I certainly never overtly asked her to be more ladylike- something I remember hearing from the adults in my life almost constantly-and yet, her entire transformation could be attributed to exactly that.
Then, the other day, a boy who looked to be around 17 or 18 years old barreled down the cereal aisle I was browsing with my daughter. I grabbed her arm and pulled her far enough from the center that his hip barely ricocheted off of her elbow. He looked down at my daughter, and I heard her say, “Sorry. Excuse me”. He nodded with a smile and went on his way, and that was that.
Well, that was that until we were picking fruit and she said, “Mom? Why did I apologize to that boy when he ran into me”? I had to figure out what she meant, because the exchange hadn’t struck me as the least bit abnormal. I played the moment back in my head, and I realized I didn’t have a good answer, so I told her we’d talk about it when we got home. I told her I needed to think about it.
I mean, all things being equal, he should have been the one to say sorry.
But all things aren’t equal, are they?
Because after all this time; after purposely deleting words like “ladylike” from my vocabulary to avoid imposing ridiculous, biased expectations on my daughter; my first reaction to the exchange between my daughter and a young man who very nearly collided into her at full speed was pride. I was proud that she was polite. And no matter how many ways I ran the scenario in my head, I realized I would not have wanted her to respond differently than she did. Because I truly wanted her to behave like a lady.
So, this totally horrified me. For fuck’s sake, I’m a feminist! Here I was, practically expecting my girl child to defer to someone else’s boy child for something that was not her fault. It suddenly dawned on me how often I apologized for similar reasons. I realized that I say “I’m sorry” A LOT. It is how I was raised to behave. It was not how I wanted to raise my daughter. I wanted her to be accountable for her actions, but to let other people be accountable for theirs. Yet, here we were.
I didn’t know what to tell her. So…
I told her the truth:
I explained that in our society, women were traditionally viewed as the weaker, softer sex. They were encouraged to defer to men, and to be polite and soft-spoken. Men were expected to be strong, and aggressive, and outspoken. Men are taught to inquire, and women to accept. Men have been bred to be politicians, but women have been bred to be diplomats. Women avoid conflict; they apologize when they haven’t done anything wrong. Women smooth things over. They forgive and forget. Men build empires and women make them habitable. Women have been conditioned to be the heart; men the brain.
The thing is, now we know more about both men AND women. Now, we know that it isn’t really about whether someone is a man or a woman. Now, we know that there are as many soft-spoken, diplomatic men as there are inquisitive, assertive women and people are just who they are. I told her that I imagine there would come a time when she would be the one barreling through the grocery aisle, and that I hoped she remembered to stop and apologize when it did. But I also told her that saying sorry today was okay, too.
Because it was a nice thing to do.
I told her she could have, rightfully, insisted that the young man accept the blame for their encounter. She could have been aggressive, and loud, and forceful about it. She could have insisted he apologize. She had every right.
But this is where it got complicated. I tried to explain that having the right and exercising it were two different things. And this is when I realized why I was proud to see her behave like a lady. It isn’t because I want to derail feminism and set the USA back a hundred years. It doesn’t really even have anything to do with gender. I would have felt the same way no matter to whom she was polite. It’s because somewhere along the line, we have forgotten how to just be nice, just because. Every action, and every reaction, and every damned everything has some giant cause backing it up. I got caught up in that mindset for a little while that day, until I remembered that saying excuse me is sometimes just those two words. Not an admission of guilt; not a deference to a superior person; not a cop out.
Sometimes, we need to remember to just be polite. We need to behave ourselves like the ladies and gentlemen we were raised to be. Not every moment is the right moment to prove a point, or back a cause, or even to be heard at all. For a minute, I thought I’d failed at one of the most important parts of parenting. I thought I’d failed to help my daughter develop a sense of self and take pride in who she is.
But that young lady is still the child who refused to switch from little league to softball when they said girls were supposed to. That young lady is equally confident of her abilities whether she’s on the drums or trombone, making lip balm, playing basketball, or painting my nails. She couldn’t care less whether her teammates are male or female; she’s been the only girl many times and I don’t know if she ever even noticed it. So, even though I have to actively rewire my brain around gender, almost constantly…she doesn’t.
Equality is not here. It may never be here, though we continue to strive. But pushing the issue at the price of basic human kindness sometimes seems to widen the gap, not close it.
So, I explained all of this to her; I talked to her about being kind for kindness’ sake.
Then, I told her that in the future, she was under no obligation to apologize unless she had something to apologize for and that she could decide whether or not to just smile and throw out a quick, “Oops, sorry!” just to be nice.