Yesterday it was a sunny and hot 85 degrees here.*
We spent a great deal of time outdoors, including a family outing to a popular local restaurant with a shaded patio that surrounds a playground for kids.
Alert-eyed parents scouted for available tables and staked claims to tables clearing out. In most cases, the dads were sent ahead and they did a good job of staking claims rather genially. One dad approached the table next to us and began to move in when another dad popped up and said, "Oh you know, we were going to sit here," the first dad hesitated for a second---should he challenge? He had to weigh: disappoint his approaching wife who told him to get. that. table. now! or follow his instincts to move on---then he said, "Right, sure, sorry," and began to move away. The second dad, his territory respected, said, "Well maybe we can split the two tables, if your family doesn't mind being tight? How many do you have?" The dads proceeded to negotiate the division of space, and upon completion of this, each stood territorially near his table, satisfied smile of success on his face.
Within minutes, the moms and children arrived. The children only briefly checked in---impatiently listening to parental reminders about safety---then raced off to the playground.
It was fascinating to think in anthropological and sociological terms and watch the interactions between adults competing for limited resources---tables, waiters attention---and children competing for limited resources---slides, prime spots under structures, and sand shovels.
You saw the instinct---get it for myself---and then the brief pause as the higher order brain function overtook the reptilian brain function and manners and mores won out. I imagine it's again---as always, as in the case of the dad deciding whether to challenge---a matter of weighing goals, pros and cons.
I thought of the competitive zoo parking lot incident and I realized that manners are strongest when it comes to ongoing contact with people, especially in situations when you must see other people over food, and reptilian instinct is strongest when it comes to our role as parents.
In the recent Hump Day Hmm discussion about using our words, more than one woman admitted to biting her tongue frequently, except when it came to her children. I believe this is because society excuses (or perhaps the better word is allows) women to be assertive when it comes to their children's welfare.
But is assertiveness instinctual for all people? And does society leave room for women to be assertive in other areas? With impunity?
I considered the character judgments against Hillary Clinton, for example. I know exactly how assertive a woman in a male dominated field has to be. I know we have to both more and less---less emotional and more able---in order to get something approximating equal position and respect. Or, at least you did when I was coming up. I came up in a time when it was still okay to ask a woman in an interview if she was planning on getting married and having children. And then it was okay to decide to not hire her if she said yes. Hillary came up even before that.
When I wrote, recently---here and at MOMocrats---about my concerns with Hillary Clinton as a candidate,** several people challenged me about my standards. I'd written no such critique of male politicians not playing nice. Was that fair?
My initial answer was: I didn't criticize Barack Obama, for example, because I hadn't caught what I considered a pot-shot coming from his campaign. I hold everyone to the same standard.
But is that even possible?
Surely I am biased. Men and women aren't exactly alike and our roles in society aren't exactly equal.
Perhaps I do have different expectations of Hillary Clinton, and perhaps my view is influenced, as it is for so many other people, by her gender.
As I watched the children in the playground, I pondered this. What are the differences between boys and girls, and do we have different standards for them?
Persistence and another little girl of similar size and age stood in a little hut at the top of a slide. They had a little routine they liked to do before sliding down. They paid attention to where they were in the moment and were involved in the journey. Meanwhile, a little boy barreled through the playground, intent on sliding. He paid no attention to where he was or what he passed as he was getting to his destination. His mind was dedicated to a single task: get to slide as quickly as possible and slide down. He didn't notice another child's sand pile that he stepped on, the shovel his foot accidentally kicked out of his way, and he certainly wasn't aware (I think) that he shoved both girls aside in his quest for the slide. But he did. He had a goal and he was extremely assertive in going for it.
Persistence and the other little girl simply shrugged after they recovered from being shoved aside, and took no offense at having their turn to slide taken over by this boy. It was as if, by age three, the girls were already used to boys pushing them aside on their quests. It was as if, by age three, the girls had decided it's just easier in most cases to step aside and let the boy barrel through.
I thought of Patience playing co-ed soccer. The boys never hesitated to take the ball, and nobody ever commented on it. The girls, on the other hand, usually tried to carefully take turns and were so nice to share the ball with anyone who wanted to take it. The girls ran and ran and ran to keep up with the teams as they raced up and down the field. They were excellent runners, excellent at keeping up. Terrible about getting the ball. They weren't assertive enough.
Obviously there are exceptions, both in general and personally.
Every now and again (okay twice, total, period) one team would have a girl who was assertive. No way was she letting those boys have the ball, or anyone else for that matter. I saw that this assertiveness bordered on aggression because she alone had to overcome both her male teammates desire for the ball and her opponents desire for the ball. I noticed boys would help other boys in their assertiveness but were not quite willing to let the girl keep the ball. One girl charged that ball down and scored more times than we could count.
The crowd went wild when the game included an assertive girl.
"Look at her go!" Parents would say excitedly at first.
"Finally, a girl who goes after the ball." They'd continue.
But then...the compliments took a double-edged turn.
"Can you believe that girl!" Parents would say, a little more hesitantly, "She really wants that ball!"
You could tell they thought she ought to pass and share.
I saw no similar expectation for boys. The assertive girl was clearly---by a mile---the best player on the field in that game. Our two best players were boys. They definitely kept the ball to themselves, and people seemed generally fine with it. Certainly there were no comments made.
In that particular game, when it was time to switch out players and positions, the coach had a little talk with the girl about giving her teammates a chance to dribble the ball, too.
I started wondering.
I don't have boys. They are slightly alien to me, as children. I'm used to parenting girls, and believe me, I think there are some differences.
I assume all of us parents are teaching the same general principles to our children: be kind, be respectful, think of others.
But we're teaching it to very different people, and I wonder how the message affects boys and girls differently.
Do we need to so strongly encourage sharing, taking turns, and so forth in girls? There seems to be a little bit of a natural instinct that takes over, eventually. Should they have to share...all the time?
Do we overencourage this, out of concern for how we appear as parents, and how our children appear to other parents?
Do we unintentionally pass along a message to girls that we expect them to always capitulate to the needs of others when we force them to always share?
I wonder if we need to do a better job of promoting assertiveness in our girls.
I wonder if it can be okay sometimes to tell our girls, sure, that's yours, you play with it as long as you like.
As I watched that toddler boy barrel around the playground last night---a nice enough little kid, never did anything aggressive, never harmed another child, was simply very assertive in achieving his goal---I observed to my husband, "You know, the truth is, we know that assertiveness is, in the end, a fairly good trait to have, because it enables you to get where you want to go. If I was operating in a vacuum, I'd never comment on our girls' assertiveness because, on a base level, I know it will help them succeed in life."
But I don't operate in a vacuum, and on both a conscious and instinctual level, I know what society expects of my girls, and so, upon reflection, I find that I have spent a lot of time drumming them to "overcome" their assertive instincts.
I wonder if mothers of little boys let it slide a bit more. Now don't get defensive. I see mothers of boys encourage sharing and taking turns.
But assertiveness comes out in other ways, too. I think we step in and teach boys and girls at slightly different points in their behavior.
The mother of that boy stopped his assertiveness at the total aggression point: when he went to take a shovel from another child.
Meanwhile, the girls? It seems we stop them at the assertiveness point.
I wonder what precedent and expectation that sets, but more than that, I wonder what kind of society it creates and how it makes our girls--especially the ones with a stronger degree of natural assertiveness---think of themselves.
* Note: To the people who live north of the subtropics and who just sighed in envy or shot daggers from their eyes in my direction---my day is nearly through; within a month or so our weather will turn unbearable and we'll be locked indoors for 5 months.
** Note 2: I believe a lot of the questions and concerns would be leveled at Hillary Clinton even if she was male. I think quite a bit of it is principle. But, I can't help but think there is a bit of a gender thing at play, too.
Copyright 2008 Julie Pippert
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