Recently we were at a party where there were lots of kids which prompted what I believe was a lesson in people. I was chatting with another mom, a woman I had just met, when Penelope ran up to me.
“Those kids aren’t being nice to me.”
She’s been doing this for about a week now, where she’ll come up to me in a social setting and make that statement. We can psychoanalyze the crap out of why our kids do what they do, but I’ll just say what I know to be true of my daughter: she is an extroverted social butterfly with more friends than me. I can tell this is a testing phase that will pass. So I address it, but I am not concerned about it and don’t give it too much attention.
“Mom! Did you hear me? Those kids aren’t being nice to me.”
“Yes baby, I heard you.”
I had my eye on her, so I knew that no one put a hand on her. A bit more investigation told me they were older kids and they just didn’t want her messing with their super-important organized ball game they already started, which, at three years old, is a concept she’s not quite into yet. So they told her she couldn't play. In any case, I think it’s actually a good thing that she experience these situations, even that she run into a few assholes from time to time because hello, life lessons. The real world is no Daniel Tiger episode.
I have no plans to shield her from the fact that some people are just mean. I’m not saying I’m going to throw her into a toddler fight club every Wednesday afternoon, but I welcome these naturally-occurring situations because I want to a) see how she interprets them on her own, and b) allow her to learn lessons about others and herself. This was a lesson in people.
I gathered my response:
“I’m sorry those kids weren’t being nice, baby. It looks like maybe they wanted to play their game that they already started. You can ask them if you can play the next one. Or maybe you can play with some friends over there, in that playhouse.”
She nodded and perked up, ready to go to the playhouse with the kids closer to her age. We talk a lot about being an “includer,” playing with others. I knew we’d talk more when we got home, so I was fine with my answer for now and it seemed so was she. This wasn’t the time or place to delve into it, and I was caught off-guard because kids don’t usually fax you a memo of “curveball questions I will throw at you today” to prepare you for the "right" responses (although that’d be great). Plus, I noticed Ciro in the corner of the yard about to attempt to eat a golf ball so, you know, priorities. We’d talk more later.
This should have been the end of it. But the record skipped when the woman I had been chatting up bent down to my daughter’s level and decided she’d take over.
“Sweetheart, listen, boys are just like that. They’re just, you know, mean and nasty sometimes, they don’t mean anything by it. Boys will be boys!” Then she stood back up and shrugged, giving me a wink, as if she really helped me out there.
There are two major problems I have with what Chatty Cathy said: 1) she just told my daughter that all boys are mean and nasty, and 2) she pretty much told her that’s okay. That it’s acceptable if boys are mean, because, you know, “boys will be boys.”
There it is again. Boys will be boys. A statement that sounds harmless enough to some. I'm sure I will catch flack for this, or some will think I'm being uptight, but there are many reasons this phrase is nails on a chalkboard for me - especially when it's used like this. I really do believe that in the end, both genders lose. How fair is it, to her new friend in preschool, that because he is a boy she might assume that he’s going to be mean? How fair is it, that she’s learning that in future interactions with boys who in fact are jerks to her, that it’s okay, that’s “just how they are” – no big thing? How fair is it, that when she looks at her brother, she might assume he’ll get away with being an asshole because of his anatomy?
This saying wouldn't bother me if it were a one-off comment, but it's everywhere. I think that when we allow these biases to seep into our parenting of our little people, we do everyone a giant disservice. We allow the nice boys to be lumped into a category of “inherently bad,” while simultaneously giving the real jerks permission to keep on with their shitty behavior. It’s toxic, it’s perpetuating, and it serves no one.
When I was in the third grade, a little boy – let’s call him Johnny – would punch me. As you could imagine, it hurt. When I complained about it I remember being told, “Oh, he’s just doing that because he likes you!” And that was that. I accepted it because, as I had of course just learned, it was normal behavior. There was nothing wrong with what he was doing – he just liked me. So I should be flattered, really, that I had become this booger-eater’s punching bag, and he could go on doing it, because it was acceptable “boy” behavior. Halfway through the school year I distinctly remember looking down at my bruised arms and thinking, “Wow, he must really like me a lot!”
What if, instead of telling me to accept it and be flattered by it, or making it a gender issue, someone actually said to third-grade me, you tell that little fucker to stop it?
Or, here’s a PC-version: You don’t tolerate that from anyone, boy or girl. You tell him to stop. If he does it again you wind up and you hit him right back.
Regardless of our various parenting styles, I’d love it if we could all just teach our kids two basic principles: 1) people are people, and 2) don’t be a dick.
Back to the party, the ball-playing boys, and the meddling mother.
Listen, did did the mama bear in me want to rise up, walk over to that group of boys, grab them all by their collars and demand they “include my daughter this instant you little shits!” Maybe a little. But logic steps in and, you know, impulse control. I saw them for what they were: a group of older kids doing their thing, playing an organized game that isn’t conducive developmentally to a 3-year-old. Penelope is an old soul and she loves all kids, especially the older ones, and doesn’t understand that she doesn’t yet understand, if that makes sense.
As for the mom, did I want to breathe fire on her for daring attempt to parent my child? Actually, not really. This lady probably figured she was helping me. I struggle with other people and their unsolicited advice because some people actually do have valuable gems to pass along. Some of the anecdotes passed along to me when I was struggling with my first baby and then my second were the life rafts I clung to when I felt like I was drowning.
Maybe she interpreted my lax response as being unable to find the right words, or not knowing what to say. The truth is that I like to wait, to assess the situation, and to see how my daughter is going to respond before jumping in head first and telling her how to feel, or catapulting my judgments or conditioned thinking onto her still-growing mind. That maybe she can make a positive effort to be a part of something, or find a better situation for herself. And I think that one of the best tools I can put in her toolbox is the knowledge that while she can’t control what other people do, she can control her own reactions. She’ll get better at this when she’s older. But why not start now?
“Boys will be boys.” “Girls are catty.” No. Here’s the wisdom I’ll impart on my daughter (and my son): People are people. There are many different types of people, some of whom are going to be her people, some of whom are not. She will figure out who her people are by whose energy she feels the best around, who makes her laugh, who is inclusive and who lets her be herself. She will come to know who are not her people by understanding that some people are unkind, exclusive, and just simply fucking suck. We don’t need to make excuses for these people, we just need to learn how to recognize them. The faster I can teach her to hone that skill – that intuitive piece of her that recognizes the good-hearted ones from the ones who might do her harm, regardless of their gender, and does not react with extremes of rage or blind acceptance – the better off she’ll be.
She will know when and how to stand up for herself. She can hold her own. She will also come to know that she doesn’t have to be unkind back or retaliate or anything of the sort, and that she can simply move away, move along, and let her light shine in another space. That she doesn’t need to give any of her beautiful energy over to negativity. In this particular scenario, if someone is unkind, she can choose how she’ll interpret the behavior. Maybe that means seeing a situation for what it is, and finding a way to be involved if that's what she wants. Maybe that means knowing she can move along and find some other friends to play with. But she will also learn not to paint an entire gender with one brush, or worse – to expect a certain behavior from all of them.
A few weeks ago I sat in the pickup line at preschool waiting for Penelope, and when her teacher brought her out to my car, she told me a quick story. “Penelope was just over there with the group waiting for pickup, and *Steven* (not his real name) poked her in the face. Before I could intervene Penelope said, ‘Stop. I don’t like that and you better never do that again.’ I was so happy!” And her teacher triumphantly put her arms in the air.
I began to tear up. I don’t know what I was most happy about: that my daughter stood up for herself, or that her teacher applauded her for it. She didn’t punish her for doing it, and she didn’t tell her he’s only doing it because he's a boy and “he likes her”.
I hope we can retire “boys will be boys.” Because our girls deserve better than that – and so do our boys.
This post first appeared on AlessandraMacaluso.com. Alessandra Macaluso is author of What a Good Eater! and The Real-Deal Bridal Bible, host of the Real-Deal Brides Podcast, and blogger at AlessandraMacaluso.com. Alessandra’s work is featured in several anthologies, and she has contributed to The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, and many other online publications. Her original screenplay “Polar Suburbia” placed as a semi-finalist in the Moondance Film Festival. Alessandra is mom to two toddlers and a twenty-five pound Maine coon cat who believes he is a dog. She spends her time driving her OCD husband completely nuts with her constant rearrangement of scenery in their home. Learn more at AlessandraMacaluso.com and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.