I’m Not Teaching My Daughter to Be Polite
By Selena Mills
Photo © verastuchelova/123RF
Dec 20, 2017
Let me preface by stating that I don’t believe politeness and having good manners to be mutually exclusive. As parents, we hope to teach our kids to be polite. But what does that really look like? To many, it means to smile, to speak quietly, and dole out hugs when asked. To walk, not run, to eat all of the food served up and agree, even when we disagree. The message is clear: If, as parents, we don’t comply with the flow of societal expectations in this way, if we don't teach our kids to "behave", then we’ve failed.
However, forced affection and politeness are not characteristics and behaviours I’m teaching my daughter (or son, for that matter) to uphold. The pressure to be a polite, sweet, graceful woman is astounding. Be firm, but not too firm. Be opinionated, but not passionately so. And while I can’t make that all go away for my daughter, the teachings begin now.
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The first instance that I was sexually assaulted that I’m open to talking about happened when I was about 8. It was by a neighbourhood friend. The uncle to our neighbours, a middle-aged, kind and fun-type guy. Appeared clean-cut, hardworking and trustworthy by societal standards. He would invite us to sit on his lap and have us hold his hand. And we were told to not be rude, and oblige him. We didn’t protest when his caresses became inappropriate, nor did I fully understand what was happening. I thought this was expected, that this was a part of being polite. So nothing was said, then, nor several times thereafter by numerous other men as I grew up.
If we object, we’re being difficult, or making a fuss and a ‘big deal out of nothing.’
Here’s the uncomfortable reality: these occurrences are normalized. Expectations are placed on young girls from an early age. From such flippant remarks as “You’d be so much prettier if you smile!” — sometimes stated by family and friends, sometimes by complete strangers — to how girls are conditioned to put up with such remarks and unwanted touch. If we object, we’re being difficult, or making a fuss and a ‘big deal out of nothing.’ How many of us — I’m speaking to my fellow women — grew up putting up with such standards, pretending it’s not awkward, and questioning ourselves before we question anyone else?
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While I’m fully aware that not all forms of touch are associated with predatory behaviour, I am also fully aware that sexual innuendos directed towards women begins when we are girls. Comments about "blossoming" and looking "grown up" (often accompanied by a wink and a side-eye between adults) aren’t funny, they’re creepy. And I’m far from a prude. I do think there is a way to engage in talking about sexual awareness and pleasure with kids, especially when their own bodies start changing, and that it would do us all some good to lighten up a bit and take ourselves less seriously. But I also think that we need to be talking about these things, because it’s not all so black and white. Context is everything. So is choice.
While I don’t have it all figured out, some things I know for sure: my own daughter doesn’t have to smile for strangers.
And girls have been conditioned to brush off what’s not okay.
So, while I don’t have it all figured out, some things I know for sure: my own daughter doesn’t have to smile for strangers. And she doesn’t have to hug family or friends upon demand. Nor does she have to sit on strangers’ laps. This includes Santa. She may use her voice to say no if she disagrees with someone or if she is uncomfortable. She may yield her voice with passion and firm leadership to the point of being brazen.
I didn't always identify as a feminist. But if you asked me now, on the cusp of turning forty, if I'm a feminist who plans on raising my daughter to also be a feminist, I would answer matter-of-factly that yes, I am, because I’m not trying to be polite and I'm not scared of being the "bad" or "wrong" type of feminist anymore. I just am one. It’s my responsibility to be one. That’s one thing I’m okay with not having a choice about in being anymore.
May our daughters embrace and know the familiarity of being uncomfortable while challenging the status quo. May they find solidarity in the company of others with a similar moral compass — and may they continue to push against a system that thinks they’d be so much prettier if they smiled.
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