Seriously, are we still calling girls sassy?

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I’m tired of feeling apologetic for my sassy eight-year-old daughter and I know I should try to rise above but I’ve become more concerned about it as she gets older. It’s ironic that in this Amy Schumer/Jezebel/Beyonce world that even 30-something year old women still feel the need to point out my vocal young girl. It makes me think we have still have a lot to change. My Noona as I have called her since she was a baby has always had a strong personality, maybe naturally but also probably because we let her. But I often notice people’s discomfort with a brazen young girl. Just the other night, I was at a BBQ where Noona was having a blast, hopped up on cupcakes and playing outside past her bedtime. I do what I do at parties, which is chat away with people while Noona runs free chasing cats and searching for lizards or whatever. I was talking with a new mom and was oohing and awing over her newborn baby girl, when Noona comes over to swat me or do something randomly silly and loud. Just then New Mom says, “Oh is this one yours?” New Mom then tells me that earlier she had asked Noona about her nail polish color and I guess my girl put her hand up and popped her hip and said something, like “Yeah, I got a manicure.” I dunno, it didn’t seem that weird to me, but I could tell New Mom was surprised by Noona’s sassy level. I responded by over-explaining about my child, telling funny stories about her sassiness in a self-deprecating way. Finally, New Mom says to me “Oh I’m sure she is sweet at home.”

That comment just stuck in my craw. Why do girls have to be sweet and what does that even mean? Is her sassiness more acceptable if she is also sweet? Of course, sweet girls never talk back, interrupt, pop their hip, or roll their eyes or say “whatever.” Oh no, if a girl is sassy, people say, “woah you sure do have your hands full.” And I always laugh, oh yeah, she is a handful, har har har. I even laughed for a second when another mom said “She sure is filled with vinegar.” I did correct her and I think she got the point. Filled with vinegar, who says that? But this just happened in 2016, by progressive, open-minded folks. The comments sometimes make me wonder if I’m raising a “mean girl.” Other times I have stupid worries that she will grow up to be a career-climbing bitch with shoulder pads and big hair, knocking down all the sweet ladies that come in her way. In fact, New Mom even called Noona an “alpha” at one point and that bugged the hell out of me too.

So let me explain. My Noona is not an alpha, she is not bossy, or sassy, she is not interrupting me for attention, and she is not a mean girl/bully. When I drop her off at camp or school, she has a group of friends that immediately gravitate towards her to play. My Noona organizes her playdates, confidently handing out my cell phone number to other moms so we can finalize details. She walks right up to new kids at the park and asks them to play without hesitation. She comes up with silly new games, like pretend restaurant or find the lizard, and the kids happily play along. I’ve always called that leadership and assertiveness. She has caring and connected long-term friendships. The other day she and a close friend were reciprocating back rubs after a long morning at a swim meet. Noona laughs out loud at her own jokes and can handle sarcasm better than some adults. This amazing young lady is determined, filled with care and a natural curiosity. We snuggle every night but now she has turned the tables and reads to me instead. And yes, she is vocal, opinionated and highly observant. All the while, I pay attention to her growth and there are certain behaviors I’m not going to stop.

For example, Noona has been raised not to accept aggressive behavior and anger. She will even point out when I sound angry and ask me to speak with care, and though it’s tough I will try to readjust my tone. So what others call “mouthing off”, I call advocating for herself. What sounds like “talking back” is really an immature kid trying to figure how to challenge authority or express an opinion, they’re just not very good at it yet. Labeling these behaviors just shuts girls down, and I bet most of us women have a defining moment when we were criticized or put down when we speaking up. I hope Noona never gets squashed, or appease others who feel uncomfortable around feminine dominance. I never want her to be abused or used. I never want her to feel shame for speaking out about her safety. And I hope she always asks questions, just like her mother.

So, instead of worrying about her eye-rolling or “whatevers” I’ve been busy building a foundation of communication based on mutual respect and advocacy. This type of relationship means my husband and I listen to her opinions, and we expect her to defend her positions with well thought out reasoning. Sometimes, we have to allow her to butt heads with us, and sometimes I walk away to diffuse the situation so we can talk later. In my opinion, this is better than reminding her to be sweet and obedient. I hope when is older she never begins a question with “I’m sorry to ask but….” Of course, I try to model kindness, teamwork and care. These values are not mutually exclusive–a person can be direct, opinionated as well as compassionate.

It’s interesting that I still bump up against prevailing societal norms that dominant women come off mean, or that little girls are bossy or type A (whatever that means). Let’s not pretend that the world is equitable. We still say “boys will be boys” when they act aggressive or rough. We never assume they have a sweet side in private and maybe we should! Nor do we call boys alpha or bossy if they are loud, outspoken or vocal. When a boy yanks a girl’s ponytail we still stay, “oh it’s okay, he just likes you.” I know my Noona would tell a boy who bothered her to stop it!  We’ve been talking about these double standards for a long time, yet we’re still making the same comments. If a boy is acting rough, we don’t worry that he will grow up to be a douchebag. If a boy has anger issues we still let him express himself freely without saying, “he is spirited.” If a boy talks back to their parents, we don’t then assume he is a bully. I’m pretty sure that bullies come from homes where there is a level of toxicity, abuse, and abandonment. And trust me, I was bullied in school, so I think I’d be pretty aware if my child was treating someone badly. And if she were I’d be the first to figure out solutions.

And why am I justifying any of this to anybody? Because it still astounds me that I bump into people that need to label my child’s outgoing personality. Even when they try to go with it, I still discern a sense of unease, or worry that I will be so screwed because she is really expressive. In the end, these judgments are exactly why I protect her rights as a child to form her personality, to experiment and modulate her communication as her brain matures and makes new neural connections. I’m trying protect her from developing shame and debilitating self-doubt because society still wants to pigeonhole little girls as nice and sweet. Those type of creeping thoughts make it hard to make clear decisions in life, trust me I know! It is much more challenging to parent in this way, constantly strategizing ways to assist her development as human. But I remain resolved to this process and will always stick up for my intuitive, self-motivated, and smart Noona. She has to go out there and become an adult at some point. Leadership, strong communication and critical thinking skills are already in her toolbox. So you know what, seriously, she can roll her eyes or pop her hip if she wants! If you see her, or any girl express themselves this way, don’t get all judgmental and concerned that she is not acting right. Just think you’re watching the growth of an assertive, independent and self-assured woman, these are more useful descriptions than sassy, alpha, bossy, or type A.