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Overheard in a restaurant:

Little Girl:  “I hate boys.”

Mother: “Well, boys can be fun to play with sometimes.”

Little Girl:  “No!  Well, I don’t like Jacob*.  He’s mean.”

Mother:  “He’s not mean.”

Little Girl:  “Yes, he is mean.  He is mean to me.” 

Mother:  “Jacob is a nice boy, he’s not mean.”

Little Girl:  “He’s mean.  He throws stuff.  And I don’t like it.”

Mother:  “Oh, well make sure you don’t throw stuff back ok.  Because that isn’t nice.”

And the conversation moved to another subject.  Discussion finished.  But what underlying message did mom really leave with her daughter?   “Oh my”, I thought.

All right, first I do want to say that this was not a rotten mother, I hold no ill will and am not shaming her and truthfully the interactions I witnessed between mother and daughter were loving, touching and I think she’s probably a great mom. Being a mother myself and having struggled for a lot of years trying to craft my own thoughts and messages to my daughter, this conversation struck me as a perfect example of what is missing in how we talk to our children, especially our daughters.  I’ll get to that in a minute.

I’ve never bought into the belief that girls are wired to be catty and mean any more than I believe boys are wired not to cry, or to never hit the laundry basket.  I’ve begun to wonder if it may be in part because of the mixed message we have given girls for generations.

Back to my eavesdropping.  (I’m sorry, the restaurant was really quiet, the little girl was quite loud and our elbows were almost touching… and I had nothing to distract myself with.)   Let’s dissect the conversation

Little Girl:  “I hate boys.”

Typical of children especially, it’s that all or nothing attitude.  I hate all boys.

Mother: “Well, boys can be fun to play with sometimes.”

Well done!  A great attempt to help her daughter open her mind and engage in discussion.  I agree that boys, in general, can sometimes be fun to play with.  The message?  Consider the bigger picture, avoid the all or nothing assumptions.  Let’s talk about this.  Sometimes is a pretty good word.

Little Girl:  “No, well I don’t like Jacob*.  He’s mean.”

The message got through, the little girl decides it’s not “boys” but one “boy” in particular.

Mother:  “He’s not mean.”

Here’s where mom got my cringe response going.  There was no open dialogue, the message I heard clearly is “you are wrong”  An open ended question like “what happened” or engaging her with “tell me more about Jacob being mean” is more likely to uncover and hidden worries or feelings that are beneath a blanket statement.

Little Girl:  “Yes, he is mean.  He is mean to me.”  

Undeterred, she was determined to make her case, be heard and listened to.  This is obviously important to her.  Bravo!

Mother:  “Jacob is a nice boy, he’s not mean.”

Mom undermines her daughter’s opinion and by doing so gives the message, “your opinion and how you feel don’t matter”.  She might have helped the conversation by affirming her feelings, “You don’t sound happy about playing with Jacob.”

Little Girl:  “He’s mean.  He throws stuff.  And I don’t like it.”

Undaunted the little girl offers her proof of why Jacob is mean and she doesn’t like him.

Mother:  “Oh, well make sure you don’t throw stuff back ok.  Because that isn’t nice.”

Mom might have had more luck in getting to the real issue by reflecting what her daughter was trying to tell her.  “So, Jacob has been throwing things.  I can see why you were annoyed.  Was Jacob angry?”  Finally she could have summarized the situation to let her daughter know she understood.  “You aren’t happy playing with Jacob when he’s throwing things.  But if he stopped throwing things, it might be fun?”  This way a child knows she’s at least heard and understood even if there isn’t a simple solution available.

Not sure what to do, I think the mother tried to brush it off, the “mean” event maybe wasn’t such a big deal really.  But it was to her daughter.  The underlying message I heard was, “People are sometimes like that, it’s just the way it is, but be nice anyway; perceptions of others are more important than how you feel and you are powerless to change it.”  I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the message mom intended to give at all.

The important thing about underlying messages is that they are never spelled out.  Sometimes they even aren’t intended, but what we say and what is heard are often different, especially by children who don’t have the wisdom and experience of adults.  Children love to tell us about their lives, they also come to us for help in learning to navigate that life.  This is the time where the real life lessons occur, helping them navigate all the interactions they will have over their lifetime.

And here is the crux of the problem in my opinion.  We are still giving girls the incomplete message of “just be nice”.

I am all for being nice.  This whole Rise Like Air thing is about finding our greatness, being kind, overcoming adversity, helping ourselves and others. 

We need to teach our children to be nice, but so much more than that. The challenge we face as parents and educators is to help children be nice, but at the same time to utilize the skills they need to be function with others in the world.  Nice is only one facet and as parents with girls we focus on it almost solely.  Somewhere deep down I think we still believe a husband or father will always be there to take care of our little girl.  I’ll let you in on a little secret, even if you’re there, they still need to be able to take care of themselves; period.  It is our job, our duty to ensure they have the skills, and we are falling short; way short.

Our children need the skills to be able to be nice without fearing being walked on and stepped over.  Remember the saying, “Nice guys finish last?”  It doesn’t need to be that way, it shouldn’t be that way. 

We need to give our children the skills then need to socialize well and we do a very poor job of it because so often when our little children come to us with problems like this our first response is “just be nice” like that will just make it go away.  We need to teach our children how to be nice while at the same time standing up for themselves and their beliefs, we need to help them learn how to be nice while still dealing with the Jacobs.  

I think girls often end up meaner and cattier because they don’t know how to do the other things while being nice.  So they ensure the perfect facade is in place; look pretty, smile, be nice, always appear innocent and then do whatever you need to do to survive in the real world, but never get caught without your facade in place.  

And you know what?  Sometimes being nice means walking away from those who aren’t, it means being true to ourselves and letting those who don’t value us go.  

One thing I do know is that if you continually undermine a child’s opinion long enough, eventually they will either stop sharing it with you or they will begin to believe they are wrong, their feelings don’t count and that they are unable to change their circumstances.  We wonder why children stop talking to us.  To a degree it’s a natural step in the gaining independence process, but it can also be an indicator that communication has gone awry.

 I have found girls and women who have high self esteem tend to be nice, strong, confident and very successful at navigating life and relationships without meanness or cattiness.  The girls and women who tend to be catty and mean may appear to be the nicest of the nice on the surface and have the world by the tail, but behind the facade you will often find a woman who is terrified of making a wrong move and feels like a victim of her own life.

Ultimately I think a parent wants their children, regardless of gender, to grow up to possess many positive traits including but not limited to:

  • kindness
  • joyfulness in life
  • resilience
  • self-discipline
  • honesty
  • bravery
  • confidence

Developing those traits starts early and it starts with the messages we give both with what we say and what we don’t say.

Here’s some tips on actively listening to your children (and even adults!) from Alberta Health Services

  1. Ask open ended questions
  2. Use reflective listening
  3. Affirm your child’s feelings
  4. Summarize what you’ve heard

* Names have been changed to protect their identity. (Truth be told I missed the boy’s name so who knows if I’m right or wrong.)

Further reading:

Huffington Post: by Hilary Wilce  6 Qualities Kids Need To Succeed and One They Don’t

How To Listen Actively To Your Children from Alberta Heath Services

How To Talk So Your Kids Will Listen and Listen So Your Kids Will Talk

©2014 Rise Like Air  J. Fries

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