How often have you heard that a girl has been called bossy and a boy, displaying the same types of behaviour, being congratulated on ‘being a leader’? I find it irksome. Society wants males and females to behave in a certain way. Girls should be meek, obedient, humble, invisible. Boys should be loud, brash, confident, decisive, controlling. And if either boys or girls break ‘type’ – then all hell breaks loose.
If a man defers to his female partner before making a decision, he is mocked for being ‘whipped’. If a woman makes a decision without referring to her male partner (either at home or at work), then she is a ‘ball breaker’. So how is that fair? And how can equality ever be achieved if we have preconceived standards that each sex must adhere to?
In my early days of senior leadership, when I would analyse and study patterns in end of Key Stage 2 data, I’d always be focusing on those children who didn’t meet their end of year targets. Who were they? What had happened? Had something happened in their home lives that affected their learning? Who were the children who had made accelerated progress? This is when I discovered a section of children, who I termed the ‘invisible’ children. These were the well-behaved, quiet, meek children – often girls, who were always just under the radar. They were missed because they never caused any problems, always got on with what they had to do – didn’t always get things right, but tried their best. People pleasers. Non-confrontational. Heads down, getting on with things. Invisible.
We teach our girls to be invisible but pleasing to the eye. How often are girls praised for their behaviour and their presentation – be that handwriting, or what they are wearing? They get attention by pleasing people. So what happens? Girls turn into women who need to please others. You must please your prospective partners; please your employers; please your friends and families – even if that means that you are put under incredible stress, or pressure, or even in extreme circumstances, danger.
I can’t bear it. We have not been put on this earth ‘to do the right thing’, which largely entails pleasing and serving others. We always have to be mindful of other peoples’ feelings. Being assertive comes at a cost – someone’s feelings might get hurt. Well, so what? What about your feelings getting hurt? Who cares about that?
The other day, I was despairing at the state of my children’s bedrooms. I’m not sure where the myth comes from about girls being tidier than boys, I can assure you it’s not true. I finally resorted to a good, old fashioned bribery – a star chart! The deal was, fill up your sticker chart for keeping your room tidy, and you earn £1 for your money box for completing the challenge. My girls loved the idea of getting stickers, the money was just an added bonus, I was delighted that I wouldn’t need to nag them about tidying up.
I’d been explicitly clear about the rules. Keep your bedroom and the back room tidy at the end of the day – you earn one star. I would do my inspections at the end of each day. Any mess – no stars. A completed chart equals £1.
But my eldest’s mind was ticking over. How could she earn more stars and more money? So a barrage of questions began:
If we do something kind or nice can we get another sticker?
Can we get a sticker if I help my sister tidy her room?
Instead of £1, can I get £1.50?
This was the last straw for my husband, ‘Can you stop asking questions, Mum’s told you the rules and that’s that!’
I totally understood his frustrations. He just wanted a tidy house for a change. He wanted the girls to help create a tidy house.
But later on, I spoke to him privately and said, that I was extremely pleased that our eldest was asking those questions. I was delighted that she was trying to get herself a better deal. Negotiating with me – how can I get more stars? How can I get better pay? These are the qualities that we need to nurture and foster in them now, so that in the real world, she isn’t hesitant or worried about how to ask for a pay rise, how to get the most of where she is – how to negotiate to get what she wants, even if it seems that the barriers are well defined.
I’m not saying that I want to live in a world where people have no manners, no form of etiquette, no sense of how to speak to others and how to treat people. Definitely not. What I’m saying is that I don’t want leadership, assertiveness, negotiation skills squashed out of our girls because it suits society for them to be little dollies who are there to simply please others.
Let’s not encourage children to be ‘seen and not heard’, to be invisible. Let’s encourage them to be leaders, decision makers, negotiators, confident – surely our society can only benefit from this?