I've been talking with my students about gender and social expectations, and what the differences are in advice that parents give girls rather than boys. (This was prompted by the assigned reading of the brief but fascinating "Girl" by Jamaica Kincaid.)
One of the things that came up in our discussion of the text (besides why girls are "sluts" and boys are "players") was the idea that girls/women are expected to be "nice" in a way that men are not. That is, men who are not nice may be called aggressive, assertive, angry, authoritative, or commanding. A woman who is not nice is called... a bitch. (My students came up with "bitch" with no hesitation and couldn't come up with any other terms for "not nice" women except "Maybe... bossy?")
So, feminist readings of literature aside, these discussions have got me thinking about the things I say to my daughter because one of the things I've caught myself saying lately as I redirect her behavior is "Don't do x, y, or z. That's not nice."
Now it's true that kicking me while I'm changing her diaper, or smacking Cooper too roughly on the head, or attempting to BITE me when I drag her away from the bottle of stain spray she managed to reach on a shelf that I thought was too high for her in the laundry room--these are NOT NICE behaviors. But I have to wonder... Would I use the same language if she were a boy? And, even if I would tell my son that his behavior wasn't nice--does it matter? Are we really supposed to be "nice" all the time?
The thing is, she absolutely should not be doing those things. I do not want her to kick, hit, or bite me when I prevent her from playing with potentially dangerous items. But I also don't want her to think that being "nice" is the standard of behavior. "Nice" is just too emotionally loaded. It implies feeling a certain way as well as behaving a certain way. It's not just about being kind (although I certainly want to emphasize to Zuzu that it's important to be kind). Being "nice" means something a little different.
Nice means behaving in a socially acceptable way, but I think also implies that your behavior is a direct correlation with the kind of person you are. For adults, this may be true. For toddlers, it's not true. She's not being "mean" even when she tries to bite me. She's maybe testing boundaries or expressing frustration, but her intention is not actually to cause me physical pain.
So I want to move beyond the issue of "nice" and all of the loaded connotations behind the word. I notice in my own career that to be a "nice" professor is to be "easy"--to give good grades for minimal effort. (In case you're wondering, I do NOT fit that definition of "nice"). More generally, to be "nice" is to always be friendly and pleasant, to never get angry, to never raise your voice, to always be polite. These are not negative qualities.
But how far is that from never standing up for yourself or never disagreeing even if someone else is wrong or not holding students accountable for their failure to adequately prepare for an exam? I just think it can be a slippery slope. And I think the messages about niceness that I sent Zuzu are important.
In summary: I want Zuzu to know that doesn't have to be "nice" all the time (It's okay to be really angry when Mommy takes away your awesome Oxyclean spray bottle!), but she DOES have to be non-violent and not inflict harm on living things.
So my new attempt at a solution is one that I borrowed from Bringing Up Bebe (a book I read shortly after she was born). Instead of telling her to "be nice," I say, "You don't have the right to do x, y, or z."
It's not "nice" to kick a chair or bite a pillow or hit a stuffed animal, but I'd say she has the right to do those things if that's how she chooses to express her frustration. It's only when her actions infringe on someone else's rights (ie. bodily harm for me or Cooper) that her behavior needs to be modified. And that has nothing to do with being nice.
I suspect my students think I'm over thinking this, but as someone who (1) spends a lot of professional time thinking about the social messages that shape gender expectations and (2) believes that how you say something matters as much as what you say, I'm working really hard to change "That's not nice" to "You don't have the right."
Other parenting statements that I'm planning to purloin from the French for future use?
It's me who decides. (Instead of "Because I say so.)
I don't agree with your behavior. (Instead of "Stop that.")
Be wise and be gentle. (Instead of "Be good.")
Go into your room and do what you want. (Instead of "Go to bed.")
Any gems you might add to that list of go-to parenting phrases that may not come intuitively? Any potentially-sexist phrases you want to eliminate from your own vocabulary?