The Upside of Raising a ‘Rude’ Daughter

We still value girls’ etiquette over their comfort

A portrait of two young girls confidently standing together against a blue backdrop.
A portrait of two young girls confidently standing together against a blue backdrop.
Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/DigitalVision/Getty Images

MyMy daughter hates to hurt people’s feelings. It’s one of the things I love most about her — she’s an incredibly sweet kid. But her desire not to make anyone feel bad can sometimes mean that she gets roped into playing games that she doesn’t have any interest in, or that she doesn’t stand up for herself when she should.

And so like a lot of parents of young girls, I’m trying to teach Layla how to say “no” without feeling like she’s a bad person or letting someone down. It’s harder than you think. Especially since everything around her reinforces the idea that girls need to be nice above all.

This week, for example, we found out that a middle school in Utah forces girls to dance with any boy who asks them — even if they have no desire to. Even if the boy has bothered them in the past.

A local mother, Alicia Hobson, complained about the policy on Facebook when her daughter was made to dance with a boy who had previously made sexual comments to her and generally made her feel uncomfortable.

“She should not have to stand close to him with his hands on her if she doesn’t want to. She has the right to say no to anyone for any reason or no reason,” Hobson wrote. “Her body is her body and if she doesn’t want to dance with someone, that’s her prerogative.”

Why does “kindness” so often mean making men and boys more comfortable at the expense of girls’ rights and desires?

The school, however, has stood its ground; in a letter to Hobson, the principal said that requiring kids to accept dance invitations “is the nice thing to do and this will continue to be our policy.”

Another school in Utah came under fire in 2018 for the same reason; in that instance, a school spokesperson responded, “We want to promote kindness, and so we want you to say yes when someone asks you to dance.”

But “niceness” to whom? And why does “kindness” so often mean making men and boys more comfortable at the expense of girls’ rights and desires? Yes, the policy is gender-neutral, but who tends to do the asking at dances is not.

We already know that schools have a sexual harassment problem: One study showed that 43% of students were victims of verbal harassment and 21% had been touched, grabbed, or pinched in a sexual way. Teaching girls that they don’t have the right to say “no” — and teaching boys that that they are entitled to girls’ attention and affection — will only make problems like this worse.

Families (mine included) are already trying to help our children understand that their bodies are their own. If schools really wanted to help, they would teach children and teenagers how to handle rejection with grace and understanding — rather than give them the impression that a girl who would dare to say “no” isn’t kind.

For so long, girls have been overly valued for their niceness and likability — maybe the hardest, but most important, lesson we can teach our daughters is that they don’t have to be polite. That their self-worth has nothing to do with what other people think of them.

So now I find myself in the position of teaching Layla how to be “rude.” How to shrug someone’s hands off of her shoulders, or to tell the boy in math class who keeps bossing her around to shove it. It’s hard for her; she wants to be liked. And I want her to be her kind, amazing self — I don’t want that to change.

But there’s a difference between niceness and being accommodating out of fear. I want my kid to know that she can be a good person and still say “no” — to affection, a date, a dance, an adult, or to a classmate.

The real “rude” people are the ones who would expect girls to prioritize boys’ hurt feelings over their own bodies and rights.

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

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