My 10-year-old daughter, Birdy, is not nice, not exactly. She is deeply kind, profoundly compassionate and, probably, the most ethical person I know — but she will not smile at you unless either she is genuinely glad to see you or you’re telling her a joke that has something scatological for a punch line.
This is Catherine Newman — a mother describing her child, in an online New York Times op/ed titled “I Do Not Want My Daughter To Be ‘Nice.'”
The danger seems small. Newman goes on to report:
She’s the kind of person who donates money to the Animal Welfare Institute and attends assiduously to all the materials they send her, including their dully depressing annual reports, which she keeps in a special folder. Gender stereotypes, among other injustices, infuriate her. “This is so stupid!” she sighs at Target, about the pink rows of dolls and the blue rows of Lego. “Why don’t they just put a penis or a vagina on every toy so you can be completely sure you’re getting the right one?”
“She’s very moral,” a friend said recently, and it was not a compliment. She is the kid who can be a pain the neck at a play date, insisting on the rigors of turn-taking, of fair-sharing, of tidying up before the guests vamoose and leave her with an afternoon of mess to deal with.
If, at this point, questions begin to arise in your mind about who exactly is generating this behavior, you are not alone. The first alert may have come in the first paragraph. If you can say with a straight face that your ten-year-old is “the most moral person” you know, you might have a problem with either your understanding of morality or with the people you hang with. Granted, free-lance journalists may not travel in the most admirable circles, but if everyone you know has a lower ethical standard of behavior than a prepubescent playdate-fascist, you need to find a different dive bar.
But Newman’s antipathy for “nice” is grounded in a perfectly pragmatic approach to modern life. Men do not rank highly in her pantheon. She does not want her daughter to be “nice” because if she is, someone will take advantage of her. Newman does distinguish between “nice” and “civil:”
Birdy is polite in a “Can you please help me find my rain boots?” and “Thank you, I’d love another deviled egg” kind of way. But when strangers talk to her, she is like, “Whatever.” She looks away, scowling. She does not smile or encourage.
…do I think it is a good idea for girls to engage with zealously leering men, like the creepy guy in the hardware store who is telling her how pretty she is? I do not. “Say thank you to the nice man who wolf-whistled!” “Smile at the frat boy who’s date-raping you!” I want my daughter to be tough, to say no, to waste exactly zero of her God-given energy on the sexual, emotional and psychological demands of lame men….
Oops. The camel, as they say, has just poked its nose under the tent. But, the author insists, her daughter comes by her convictions indepently:
Even as a 2-year-old, she had the determined wrath and gait of a murderous zombie gnome — and my husband and I grimaced at each other, afraid, over her small and darkly glowering head.
Still, we might suspect that this kid is less an imp of Satan than a creature of her mother’s own hostilities and dogmas. Newman describes herself as “a radical, card-carrying feminist.” This true enough, I suppose, but perhaps inadequate. In fact, turning your daughter into a sock puppet for your own agendas (no, I don’t believe that she was born with a “where do I file my animal cruelty annual reports” gene), and then attributing her bratty behavior to her own inner demons seems a little beyond the pale. But, Newman, insists, her own motives are pure:
God help me if that girl ends up smiling through her entire life as if she is waitressing or pole-dancing or apologizing for some vague but enormous infraction, like the very fact of her own existence.
Oh, well. For all of you ladies out there who smile, know that we now understand well that you are either a lower life form (which, I guess, is how Newman looks at food service people) or a degenerate tool of the male libido.
Does Newman think all men are evil? No:
I know that our sweet-hearted son, who is 13, has always had the experience of niceness being its own reward. What can I do to help? he asks. Please, take mine, he insists, and smiles, and everyone says, “Oh, aren’t you nice!” and “What a lovely young man!” (Or sometimes, because he kind of looks like a girl, “What a lovely young lady!”) But, if I can speak frankly here, you really don’t worry about boys being too nice, do you? He still has the power and privilege of masculinity on his side, so, as far as I’m concerned, the nicer the better.
Yikes. “The power and privilege of masculinity?” In this case, her son might find these preordained advantages a little elusive, because when she says “he kind of looks like a girl,” she’s once again less than completely candid:
This photo comes from the author’s previous foray into sexual and gender politics, published also on the New York Times website last year.
Here we would like to take great care. We have no quarrel with this young man’s style choices, but Newman, in this earlier article, makes an astonishing statement:
My 12-year-old son has hair halfway down his back, and the fact that the bottom half of it is currently pink does not seem to be clarifying anything for anybody: everyone, everywhere assumes he’s a girl.
This is fine with him when people are nice about it, or when someone tells me how beautiful my daughters are (“a compliment is a compliment” seems to be his sensible motto). It’s less fine with him when people are dolts, like the security guy in the airport who said, “What’s your name, sweetheart?” then recoiled from Ben as though he’d suddenly found himself hitting on RuPaul. Or the guy at school who pinned him to the ground and cut off all his hair.
Oh, wait. That didn’t happen to Ben. But it did happen to somebody.
Okay, we give up. It didn’t happen, but it happened — to somebody. Any injustice is mine to be claimed, because I say I can. (In some circles, this is referred to as “standing on the grave.”)
So — if you are a 12 year-old boy who wears his hair down to his elbows and frosts the ends pink, do you not have every right to be irritated at the stupid troll security guard coolie — or waitress, or pole dancer, or other unenlightened plebeian — who isn’t sufficiently evolved to understand that you are something different from what you appear to be? Nor should anyone assume that your choices indicate any predisposition to any particular lifestyle:
But his stylishness notwithstanding, he is currently as gay or straight as your average kitchen table; Ben is more likely to marry our cat, or the board game Settlers of Catan, than he is a man or woman.
Frankly, the issue here isn’t whether he is “straight,” or “gay,” or a Hobbit. The question is, who is actually driving this behavior? Who is actually making these choices?
Which brings us back to were we started. This whole “aren’t I a special mother” thing is starting to leak. Can we be forgiven if we begin to think that Mommy may be having a little more influence on the way her children look at gender than she admits? Can we further suggest that she may be sacrificing more than might be appropriate of her childrens’ freedom of choice? And finally, can someone please tell Ben that he can’t actually marry the cat?