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.

Fighting the Battle Against Terrorized Parenting

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Yesterday at dusk, my daughter wanted to ride her bike up and down our driveway. She is well trained and stays within the boundaries of her cement confine. As I was cleaning the house, with the front door wide open and all the blinds up for maximum exposure, I kept poking my head out almost every minute calling for her response. I am sure she smelled my fear. Sometimes she would ring her bell and other times she would cheerfully reply, “I am right here”! She didn’t question why I kept calling. I reminded her not to talk to strangers. She said okay. After about 10 minutes, I think she gave up. It made me think of the freedom I used to have, riding around with my friends, without ever being called home, without a single parent on guard. I wondered if she felt annoyed, or thought she did something wrong. But I felt better after she was inside and promised a bike ride the next day, together of course. With my eyes peeled for any danger, for creeps in cars and backyard prisons.

I never aspired to become a helicopter parent, on the contrary I wanted to be autonomous and supportive, without being over-bearing. I try to give her space, I try to keep my nose in a book at the playground, letting her figure out the social scene and the scary slide on her own. But I can never concentrate as I am worried about every moment she plays. This is not enjoyable, but I am a terrorized mother, thinking about predators, bombs, rapists, gunshots, basement dungeons, girls chained up, pedophiles with cameras, stabbings, snatchings and killings.

This week I have hit the close button of a news story more than once, reading about the horrors of the poor women held captive in Cleveland for 10 years boggles my mind, makes angry and wounds my heart. I find no pleasure in horrific details. This afternoon, a friend posted something about a man making a soundproof dungeon like some torture chamber from a Stieg Larrson novel. Apparently, this would be child torturer was caught before he committed a crime. I skimmed but caught too many scary details, they made my heart race. I know there is an argument that being aware of such things, reading details and understanding the mind of predators is valuable information for parents. More than once, I have been called a wimp by family members who say it’s essential to know how sick people work so we can stay on guard and keep our children informed. But I feel it’s my job to keep my child a bit protected from horror, to filter out as much negativity as possible. My husband and I believe she should enjoy the world and know that a very large portion of society is kind and just (even though her mother is still afraid). We are not shielding her from reality, we will always tell the truth. So I try to suck in fear for her, keeping a vigilant eye. The details don’t help me stay calm and collected. Children have a perceptible sense something is wrong. Memories of my parent’s hushed whispers talking about The Night Stalker or The Hillside Strangler still freak me out.

Recently, my preschooler asked me if a shooter killed little kids in a school. I took a deep breath and said yes. Obviously she heard something about the Newtown tragedy from someone at school, since I tried to keep a tight lid on any whispering at home. Lying was not the answer, she would know the difference. I held her in my lap and promised she was safe at school. Then we talked about all the nice teachers and John the principal. I said they were always here to protect all of you. She smiled and agreed that her teachers loved all the kids. They would not let a shooter come into the school. We hugged for a long time. I wasn’t sure of the total truth of our heart-to heart. It’s mostly true, but not really a “promise-promise”. This is a tough conversation to have with an astute 5 year old, as she will press on with more questions, despite her own fear. But this is where I stand, trying be as honest without totally freaking her out. I am here to let her know that there are some bad people, but all the good people in her life work hard to protect her from harm. This I know is true.

bikeshadow2But what I truly wish is she could ride her bike outside with a pack of kids, laughing and screaming. It was at this age, around 5 that I wandered about all day long, with my 3 year old sister in tow. Now maybe this was not the best idea, but nothing ever happened to any of us. On the contrary, we had adventures, used our imaginations, got exercise, scraped our knees, lost bikes, got in scuffles and ran across busy streets to buy candy with change we swiped from our parents. It was the time of our lives, the stuff of golden memories. And there were evil things happening in 1978-1985. I recall a story about a missing Asian girl, her body found stuffed in a garbage can. I lived through the McMartin Preschool trial, the longest running child-molestation case in US History. My mom told me that the evil people at the pre-school used puppets to trick the kids into doing bad things. I didn’t understand but was very bothered by this image. As an adult, I learned about the coerced testimony of the pre-school accusers and I mourned the wasted moments lost to fear. We were told never to go into anyone’s house, a rule we rarely ever broke. Inside a house was a boring place, made only for rainy days and sleepovers. We wanted to play outside, squeezing every last ray of sun, ignoring the flicker of the streetlights, delaying dinner for as long as possible. We rode for blocks around the neighborhood, hours of freedom before dreaded homework and bedtime.

I hear a lot about our loss freedom. Blame taxes and big government and Bloomberg’s nanny state. There are terrorist plots from foreign invaders. Religious zealots and their hatred for our ways. We worry about marathons, malls, schools and crowded places. True these are targets for maximum impact. Yet terror has already reached its stealthy tentacles into our homes. We choose to shuttle kids around in cars that are more prone to accidents than riding a bike in a park alone. We need websites, like www.walkbiketoschool.org to give us resources and tools for something we used to do without much thought. It’s a great idea, but we only stopped walking to school in one generation. Have we actually forgotten how to do this? We live in a free country, a democratic society and our kids don’t walk to school any longer. Instead I worry about the quiet houses on the block, who are they? Even the friendly neighbor, the one that could do no harm, may be the one. We have lost the battle in our own neighborhoods—chalk one up for fear.

As a parent, I live in constant fear and I don’t see a way out of it because it’s a validated emotion time and again. Am I going to be the first parent to let my child walk across the street to the park on her own? Go on a play-date with less than a one-to-one parent child ratio, absolutely not! I have experimented at the park, and every time I’ve pulled back another parent will start intervening, a cue I better get my nose out of my book or be deemed negligent. So there is no way my daughter will find that pack of kids running around our neighborhood. They don’t exist anyhow. She has been raised to find me standing right next to her so she can show me every new flip on the jungle gym. There is special triage for every tiny scratch, the type we would have ignored until they scabbed off our bodies. Tattling for every indiscretion is de rigueur. I’m the one who taught her not to use the words like-dumb, stupid, or hate–so I get to hear about every instance. She points out my own dalliance with harsh language. She is on guard too.

Then I think about the good stuff. I know my child better at this age than perhaps my parents ever have, they still struggle to understand me as an adult. I see how she interacts, trying to negotiate with other kids with her bossy ways and take charge attitude. Her trepidation is wrapped around the highest slides and the whizzing speeds of the merry-ground. But she has no fear walking up to little kids introducing herself with the confidence of a mini-senator. When she is older, I will “get it” when she has a leadership role, or says she is frustrated because she hasn’t been promoted to manager. Listening to her worries, I can remind of her innate personality to lead, the one I saw forming on the playground. Watching her climb higher on each rung of the twisty ladder, a huge improvement over last year, is moment we celebrate. Yay! You are a big girl now, look how high you can climb. The smile I see on her face are snatched nanoseconds of pleasure I will savor forever. The trust she has in my judgment is all I need. I am here for her, yes for every tiny little bump, using Band-Aids needlessly, I am always around.

But it does enrage me to think that I am a bit terrorized, mainly by insidious homegrown evil. Its like we have lost freedom at a very micro level, in our own streets and parks and homes. We seem to be wary, there is little trust and connection with the community at large. This is damaging to our society, not having support further exacerbates isolation, extending the cycles of violence. And then I worry, I should to do more than just being there for my child, focusing on her trusting smile. I try to foster connections wherever I can, but it takes a concerted effort, it’s not there for the taking. I am very grateful to my community of friends and family, but I am not sure if it’s enough. To think of solutions, feel so out of reach. Getting the neighborhood together, patrolling the streets, allowing our kids to cry over a boo-boo. I know I can start with little things, like getting over the past. It’s simply a bygone era, where a jumble of worn out kids dragged their bikes home under a dusky California sky, soothing their own scrapes and dreaming up silly games to play in neighborhood streets. Without a parent on watch. Such times are lost forever.bike shadow

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