A few weeks ago at a local Purim carnival, my 3-year-old daughter was happily decked out in her Elsa costume, complete with a creepy blonde braided weave on her head. She was trying to get through a small crowd to rejoin her best friend D, who is also three and was also happily decked out in his Elsa costume.
She looked up at an older couple blocking her path and said, loudly but without any particular tone: “Excuse me!”
“She is very assertive!” the wife remarked to my husband, who was standing nearby.
If it had been my son, a little mack-truck of a toddler, stopping to say “excuse me” instead of barreling his way past you and your husband, you would have surely said, “He is very polite!”
You know this is true.
What’s so “assertive” about a little girl saying the thing you are supposed to say when you’re trying to get through a crowd? And at a decibel level that was appropriately calibrated to overcome the distance between her, a little person who stands very close to the ground, and you, a big person who likely has some amount of hearing damage?
What was she supposed to do instead— just stand and wait for however long it took you to move? What if you weren’t going anywhere? What if you were just standing and talking, as people do when they are at a social event and don’t realize a little person behind them needs to get back to her Elsa buddy? How long was she, a toddler, expected to stand and wait silently?
We overworked, type-A, organic-only, no-screen-time (ha), blog-reading, helicopter-y but not too helicopter-y, anti-bully, pro-kindness, best-everything-seeking parents work so hard to teach all of our kids, boys and girls and in-betweens, to use the same polite phrase when they want to get through a crowd.
We have read every parenting magazine article on how to raise polite little grown-ups. Pleases and thank you’s and excuse me’s abound! And then…we accuse the girls of being “assertive” when they do exactly what we have asked them to?
I was fuming when my husband told me this story. I’m grateful it was him there and not me. He shot a quick look at the offender but didn’t say anything. Had it been me, I am quite sure I would have delivered some version of this lecture to Grandma McCrotchety and then I would be That Mom, the one who made a stink at the Temple Purim carnival.
But this 30-second exchange tells us everything we need to know about what our miniature woman is going to be up against for the rest of her life. How is she supposed to make it in a society that tells her how to behave and then criticizes her when she behaves that way? Think about the public figures who are told to be less assertive, then criticized for being weak. They’re usually female.
This incident reminds me of the women who sneer at me about the Women’s March and other kinds of pro-woman activism. “No, really, please tell me what rights you think you are lacking in 2017—I really want to know,” they jeer, high-fiving the men who agree with them that sexual assault is just bros being bros.
The next time that happens, I hope to get through to that person by calmly relaying this anecdote. But more likely than not, it won’t move them. And then they will learn what “assertive” actually sounds like.