During her years as a teacher and mother, Ms. Meyers discovered that not all praise was equal and some kinds were even deleterious to kids.
Forty Years Later and It's Still Bad Advice
I recently overheard my mother giving my 18-year-old son the same bad advice she gave me forty years prior. She was talking to him about the senior ball, saying, “if a girl asks you to it, say yes even if you don't like her. Otherwise, you'll hurt her feelings.” When I talked with him about his grandmother's suggestion, he told me he just blew it off, knowing instinctively it was wrong and ridiculous.
It made me wonder, though, about the many women such as myself who took that advice to heart when we were girls. We made choices based on the belief that being nice and not hurting someone's feelings were our main mission in life. We were taught at a young age that if you weren't being nice, you were being bad and selfish. Being told that again and again stripped us of our autonomy and made us victims of our circumstance.
Can I Have This Dance?
While much has changed since I was a kid 40 years ago, we're still giving girls the wrong messages. I recently read an article about a middle school that was having a social. The kids were told in advance that they couldn't say no to anyone who asked them to dance. When a mother complained about this rule, worried that it was giving her daughter the wrong message, she was told by school administrators that it was in place to teach the children proper etiquette, good manners, and, of course, to be nice to one another!
Saying No Is Empowering
As our society struggles with issues such as sexual harassment in the workplace, date rape on college campuses, and an increase in anxiety and depression among teens and children, should we really be encouraging girls to give up their power? Shouldn't we be doing just the opposite? Don't we want them to understand their feelings, embrace their intuition, respect their bodies, and be able to say no with determination?
With this in mind, here are 5 things we should stop saying to girls because it robs them of their autonomy and turns them into victims:
1. Be Nice
My two sons are now teenagers but, when they were growing up, I never heard anyone tell them to be nice. My husband and I never told them that nor did their grandparents, teachers, or coaches. In contrast, when I taught preschool and kindergarten, I'd hear parent-helpers say it often to girls, instructing them to "play nicely!"
Why do we have higher expectations for girls to be nice than boys and what do we actually mean when we say "play nicely" to girls?" From what I observed in over 20 years of teaching is that parents want daughters who are likeable, popular, and easy to get along with but don't want the same qualities from sons. When boys are playing together, parents accept that they'll have conflicts, argue, and get frustrated with one another. They see it as normal, natural, and healthy but, when girls do it, they get panicked.
We really need to stop telling girls to be nice. Yes, all kids should act with kindness to others and expect others to act with kindness to them. They should be taught basic behaviors such as sharing, taking turns, and saying please, thank you, and excuse me. But being nice means being a people pleaser, trying to be liked and not causing disruption. Being nice means giving up power — going along to get along — and girls can't afford to do that any more. If we want them to grow up and have positions of power in business, academia, and politics, we need to give them autonomy at a young age.
Grown women today are finally voicing their displeasure with strangers on the street and male co-workers at the office telling them to smile. There's even a campaign about it, urging men to stop demanding it of women. I don't know a female out there who hasn't had this experience and I don't know a guy who has. Young, attractive women seem to get it the most, especially from much older men who act like it's their right to see a smile on a pretty face. Being told to smile feels patronizing, sexist, dominating, and just downright creepy. It feels invasive as if your power is being stripped away — like you don't even have autonomy over something as personal as your facial expressions.
Girls start hearing the smile command at an early age, once again getting the message to be people pleasers. They're being asked to ignore their own feelings and force a smile on their faces just to make someone else happy — someone who's almost always a male. They get the message loud and clear that their mission in life is to be appealing to others — from what they wear, how they do their hair, and how they appear gleeful even when they're not. They learn too early to stuff the emotions that society considers unattractive: sadness, frustration, seriousness, anger, and confusion. The suppression of these feelings can lead to serious problems in the future such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.
3. You Should Be a Teacher
When I taught preschool, the nearby high school would send students over to help so they could earn credits for their child development class. They were always girls and, when I questioned that, I was told the class was made up of only girls. My son was in an engineering class at the same high school, and he and his fellow students were sent to various engineering companies around town. That class was made up of only boys.
While I greatly appreciated the help of those teenagers in my classroom, I couldn't help but think their high school was doing them a great disservice. Preschool teachers make little money, the turnover rate is extremely high, they get little respect from society, and there are few avenues for advancement. They're often seen as unintelligent and lacking ambition. It just seemed wrong, outdated, and deceitful for the high school to act as though teaching preschool was a viable career option for girls when the pay is so meager (on par with a fast food worker).
Too often parents and other relatives encourage girls to become teachers and don't introduce them to other professions. It's so valuable for girls to meet women (and men, too) in jobs that are unfamiliar to them. It opens up their minds to a whole world of opportunities beyond what they see every day.
4. Give Your Teacher/Aunt/Grandpa a Hug
In this day and age, I'm surprised that parents still order their kids to give people hugs and kisses, but it happens to me all the time. When I run into a former student at the supermarket or downtown, their parent will inevitably say to the youngster, “give your teacher a hug” and gently push her toward me. When she hesitates, I'll say, “you don't need to if you don't want.” She then relaxes, and we have a pleasant chat without the forced physical contact that's awkward for some kids.
I know as a mother of two sons, one with autism, that not all children enjoy hugs, kisses, and hand holding. Some find it uncomfortable and even frightening, and we adults need to understand that. We need to give all kids, but especially girls, an empowering message about consent at a young age; they're in control and have the right to say no. We want them to respect their emotions, trust their instincts, and know they get to choose with whom they show affection,
Even the Girl Scouts of America have chimed in on this. They issued a reminder to parents, stating that moms and dads shouldn't force youngsters to hug or kiss relatives even during the holidays. Speaking for the organization, Dr. Andrea Bastiani stated, "the lessons girls learn when they're young about setting physical boundaries and expecting to be respected last a lifetime, and can influence how she feels about herself and her body as she gets older. Plus, sadly, we know that some adults prey on children, and teaching your daughter about consent early on can help her understand her rights, know when lines are being crossed, and when to go to you for help.”
5. Commenting on Their Weight
To say my mother has food issues would be an understatement of epic proportions. So, it's no wonder she became obsessed with my weight when I was a kid — always commenting I was too heavy, too skinny, or just right in her estimation. It made me nutty to be judged that way, knowing her love for me was conditional — based on pounds and little else. Because of her focus on my weight, I struggled with eating disorders, food obsession, and a poor body image. I was so relieved when I was pregnant and found out I was having boys and not girls because I didn't want to pass that problem on to another generation.
According to experts, moms and dads should never comment on a daughter's weight even compliments. Scientists at Cornell University found that women who remembered getting messages about their weight as girls — either positive or negative — were more likely to have a heavier body mass index and a greater dissatisfaction with their bodies. While it's natural for parents to worry about a child's weight, making comments only backfires. If they really want to make a difference, they must put in the hard work and set an example by eating a sensible diet, exercising, and having a healthy relationship with food.
Comments on Weight—Whether Positive or Negative—Are Detrimental
If You Have a Daughter, You Should Read This Book to Understand the World They Inhabit
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 McKenna Meyers
McKenna Meyers (author) on February 27, 2018:
Thanks, Dora. When I was in my 20's and worked as a server at a restaurant, male customers would ask me for hugs and kisses. Sometimes female customers would ask me to hug and kiss their dad or brother because he was celebrating his birthday, etc. Of course, if I wanted a tip, I complied but didn't like it. I didn't want any of that. I just wanted to do my job in a professional manner. Women are finally speaking up about that and, hopefully, girls today won't have the same problems when they're adults.
McKenna Meyers (author) on February 27, 2018:
Thanks, Bill. The world is changing fast and I'm just trying to keep up. I have many nieces in their 20's who are launching careers and the rules are very different now. They want to move up the ladder and have a good standard of living. They want to be competitive in the job market. They really needed to hear empowering messages while growing up about grit and determination, and not about being nice.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on February 27, 2018:
Thanks for this very important, helpful, useful advice. People misread smiles and hugs; girls have to be selective about the objects of their kind gestures. Your counsel here is all good!
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on February 26, 2018:
So very important! Great advice about a very timely subject.