How do we empower our little girls to be strong and thrive in today’s world? It seems like being “nice” doesn’t pay for women. So many of us have been taken advantage of, hurt, or assaulted all because we were being “nice.”
And this needs to change for our next generation of girls. What can we do as parents? How do we equip our daughters for this world, knowing we need to start when they’re still small?
NOTE: This is not my usual post. But I am tired of the events I’ve seen, and I want to find a way to make a change. So I’m starting with my girls, and I hope this post can help you and your daughters too. And of course these principles can and should be applied to our sons too, I am just choosing to focus on girls today.
I, for one, am starting by no longer teaching my daughters to be nice. Maybe that sounds a little extreme? But if that’s what I have to do to protect my girls, so be it.
Kids have to be taught assertiveness at a young age
Almost all of us can come up with an example of how being nice has caused us to be taken advantage of. For some, it was a minor incident, but for others there could be really deep trauma associated with the event.
And the problem is, women need to be taught well before they are women how to set firm boundaries. If we wait to teach our girls this lesson, we may be too late.
Back when I was in college, well before #metoo, I was talking to a couple other young women in my class. They were chatting about a guy that acted nice in class (the professors loved him, as far as I can tell) but showed a different face out and about on campus. A stalkery, creepy face.
A few women described how he persistently asked them to come “hang out,” either in person or on AOL instant messenger (anyone else remember AIM? The good old days) even after being told no multiple times.
Others described how he followed them around, always “happened” to be where they went, and even showed up in their dorm uninvited. One or two girls ended up with really scarring interactions with this person.
I asked one of them if he’d had problems with this guy. Her answer: “He talked to me a few times, but I shut him down really quickly. The other girls are too nice. I’m not as nice as they are and just say, ‘NO.'”
To this day, I remember talking to this young woman. It’s sad that even she viewed her protective assertiveness as not “being nice.”
How do we accidentally perpetuate “nice” with our own girls?
Now that I have daughters of my own, I think back to those days. I remember that I, too, had an extremely hard time saying a firm no.
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Granted, part of problem here isn’t that we need training in how to say “no,” but to get people (particularly men like the one from college) to hear no. Regardless, here we are.
With that said, it’s also clear that women have been conditioned, since toddlerhood, to be “nice.”
That’s not ladylike.
Just let her play with your toy.
Don’t tell me “no.”
No one will want to play with you if you aren’t nice.
Stop being a brat.
By using language like this, that implies that girls will not be accepted if they stand up for themselves, we are reinforcing behavior that could hurt them in the future.
So when someone asks our daughters to do something, even if it’s harmful, they may comply simply because their “no muscle” is weak.
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Women often continue to be conditioned to be submissive after adulthood
Through young adulthood and even beyond, we still are taught to be “nice.” We aren’t allowed to refuse requests. If we do refuse, we feel we have to apologize or explain why we’re at fault.
Sorry I can’t come over, I have too much to do tonight.
We stay in situations that aren’t best for us for the sake of being “nice,” starting in high school or college and continuing through adulthood.
He’s a nice guy, I can’t break up with my boyfriend, even if we’ve grown apart since starting college.
Well, I guess I can stay a little longer…
This authority figure says I have to sign that release form.
So we continue to be put in (or stay in) situations that harm us. What can we do to break the cycle?
How we can empower our daughters
The more I think about it, the more I’m DONE with nice. I’m not passing on this burden to my own daughters.
What am I going to teach instead?
Respect for herself, and respect for others.
Why respect is better than nice
Respect allows people to set boundaries for themselves. While I still want my children to set boundaries in an appropriate manner, I know they need to be taught this valuable skill.
You can still demand respect while being respectful yourself. I think this is the missing ingredient much of the time when we promote “being nice.”
How we teach girls to expect respect from others
Respect is a lot harder to teach than simple obedience! I’m convinced that’s why so many parents are stuck on promoting obedience (that and fear of losing control…).
But respect’s importance, whether you are referring to respect given or respect expected from others, demands that we put forth the effort to teach it to our kids.
Teach girls bodily autonomy
Even from a young age, you can teach children that their body is their own. As simple as this sounds, start by telling your infant that you’re going to pick her up. While she can’t control the situation, just knowing what’s coming next shows her respect.
As children get older, give them options. “Do you want to walk beside me, or would you rather I carry you?” (I’m all too aware that sometimes children are going to refuse to leave the house when it’s time, or melt down in the grocery store, or whatever. In those cases, just do the same as when they were babies. “I’m going to have to carry you out now, sweetheart.” You’re taking control, but doing so as respectfully as possible).
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My girls are three and five. Even this young, when I hear the inevitable, “Stop touching meeeeeee…!” whine from my oldest, I tell the younger one, “We respect people’s bodies. If your sister doesn’t want to be touched, you don’t touch her.”
And it’s sinking in. I’ve even heard my daughter tell her siblings, “Respect my body!” God willing, she’ll never have to tell anyone else that.
But since the odds are stacked against her, I want her to have that phrase in her arsenal when she needs it.
Model respecting your own needs
I am going to practice modeling respect for myself too! I’m slowly learning how to refuse social requests that don’t fit my needs or my family’s. I’m making sure to have enough time at home enjoying my kids.
I’m learning that just because someone is a “friend” or even family doesn’t mean I owe them something. There’s nothing wrong with a respectful no.
Allow kids to say no
“No” isn’t a bad word! Whenever possible, give your kids the chance to say no to something they don’t want to do. If they don’t want to go to a social event that isn’t required, why should they? If they’d rather play with blocks than another toy, why not?
And when you can’t allow a child’s “no” to stand, you can still be respectful about it and empathize with her feelings. “I’m sorry you don’t want to go to your cousin’s wedding. Sometimes these events can be boring, you’re right. But we want to show our love and respect to our family, so we need to go. But hey, there should be cake at the end!”
Why respect is harder to teach than “niceness”
Just this morning, Leia and I were on the way to kindergarten, and for some reason we were talking about what God wants from us (don’t you always have these deep conversations in the car on the way to school?).
I wanted to get this right, and I wasn’t sure what to say. I started with, “God wants us…”
And she piped up, “To be nice!”
This idea of being done with “nice” had been rattling around in my head for a little while now, and here my daughter said exactly the thing I didn’t want her to believe!
I quickly responded, “Well, not just nice, but kind and respectful.”
“What’s respectful?” she asked… And I paused.
Crap, how do you explain to a five-year old what respectful means, in the context of respecting both yourself and others? It’s so much more than “ma’am” and “sir” and “please” and “thank you.”
So I continued fumbling my words. “Respectful is thinking about what others need or want… but just because they say they need or want something doesn’t mean you have to give it to them… and you have to respect yourself too…” I was winning at teaching this concept, for sure.
“Respect” is definitely more nuanced than “nice.” Maybe that’s why we were originally just taught to be nice, because it’s easier.
It definitely doesn’t prepare us for the world, though.
I did some research so I can figure out how to communicate this concept to my children, and I’ve come up with some ideas.
Respect requires empathy. Respect requires that you allow others to make their own choices and not try to control them.
Respect may mean giving the benefit of the doubt, at least the first time.
But self-respect, which goes hand-in-hand with respect, requires that you be in tune with your own needs.
It requires that you don’t let others control your choices.
Self-respect also means listening to your instincts.
And fostering these abilities in your children requires commitment for their long-term good, not just to get them to behave in the moment.
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Conclusions on teaching respect to our girls
Like I sad in the beginning, I’m done with nice.
Here’s the deal: “Nice” doesn’t protect my daughter. “Nice” doesn’t get her where she needs to go. Too many of us have tried to live up to “nice” and have suffered as a result.
Respect earns respect. Respect listens to others.
And if respect isn’t respected, my girls can respect that person’s decision to be disrespectful and go somewhere else, where she is respected.
If you’re looking for great ideas for how to parent with respect and responsiveness, sign up for the Mindful Mamas and Connected Kids toolkit today! I look forward to hearing from you!