“She’s quite a tomboy, you are going to have your hands full,” said a stranger to me one day.
I was at the playground with my 18-month-old daughter two days before giving birth to my second daughter. Heavily pregnant and utterly exhausted, I struggled to keep up as my toddler climbed, jumped, swung and ran up and down the brightly colored play structure.
I mustered up a weak smile and said something like, “I know, she’s very active.”
When my oldest was 5 years old and my youngest was four, we moved into a new house up a quiet street at the end of a cul-de-sac. A few months after moving in, I bumped into our elderly neighbor while we were out getting our mail. She wasted no time in sharing her observations of my children.
“Oh, your daughters are always climbing and falling down. They are more like boys than girls,” she said.
When my daughters were in preschool they decided they wanted to be sea creatures for Halloween. At the Halloween parade, the children all lined up in their costumes to parade around the building collecting candy. I stood next to another mom taking pictures of the classroom girls in their costumes. Lined up were 11 princesses, one lobster, and one octopus.
She chuckled as she clicked photos, “Your girls are the least girly girls I know.”
I was hoping it was a generational thing but the off-handed comments continued rolling in from people of all ages, genders and backgrounds. They came from friends, family, colleagues and strangers.
Just last week a close family friend fell victim to the trend. While having dinner, my daughters wanted to show off their latest invention to our guest, something that involved a clothesline, pulley system and their pet tortoise.
As my husband scolded them and said, “Let auntie eat her dinner,” this well educated, open-minded, unmarried woman turned to us and said, “You are not raising girls, you know?”
Looking back, I have done it too. On more than one occasion I have chided my girls about proper behavior:
“Sit like a lady.”
“Princesses don’t eat with their mouths open.”
“That’s not very lady-like.”
Every time my daughters are running, playing, climbing, jumping and just plain acting like an energetic kid someone—even myself—comments that they are acting like boys. I wonder how many of these comments my daughters have heard and what they think of them.
The message is clear: Every time a young girl is playing, building, rough-housing, constructing, or just being active then she is behaving “like a boy.”
I know how these comments have made me feel.
They feel like an admonishment to me as a parent saying, “Hey Mom, control your daughters.”
They feel like a gentle warning to my children saying, “Hey sisters, get back to your role. Remember who you are.”
These comments are a sneaky reminder for parents to get their young girls in line. Girls should be quiet, obedient, passive; definitely not loud, energetic, and boisterous like boys.
I have found myself feeling embarrassed in public places when my daughters rough-house, laugh exuberantly, or heaven forbid tell an adult their opinion. Gender expectations and daily vernacular are so deeply ingrained that we are inadvertently pressuring our daughters to act “like girls” by being ashamed of and discouraging “boy-like” behavior.
We need to think deeply on the small everyday things we say and do to begin to rectify the massive wrongs that have been done to our daughters, sisters, mothers, grandmothers, sisters, wives, and friends for too long.
We need to rethink how we talk to our girls to avoid reinforcing gender stereotypes that have contributed to where we are today.
In a time when almost every woman I know has suffered harassment or assault in their lifetime, we must stop teaching our children that certain behaviors are “boy-like” and certain behaviors are “girl-like.” All children need to be taught first and foremost that respect has no gender. And decency is human.
Despite the frequent judgemental remarks about my daughters’ behavior, I have decided to celebrate their wonderful dizzying energy without giving into societal pressures to make them act more “like girls.”
I want to change the way I talk to my girls. I want them to embrace being loud, strong, smart, active, determined girls.
Our daughters are not acting like boys when they think outside the box and dress as an octopus for Halloween.
Our daughters are not acting like boys when they confidently express their opinions to peers and adults.
Our daughters are not acting like boys when they climb with strong sure feet to the very top of the tree.
They are not acting like boys. They are acting like self-confident girls with strong, sure voices that will stand up for themselves and each other.
With our guidance, these girls will grow into women who will not quietly endure gender mistreatment and harassment. We need to teach our girls to demand respect and not tolerate anything less, and it starts by redefining what it means to act like a girl.