I grew up in Alabama, and had a quintessentially southern childhood. Fried vegetables, football, barefoot summers. My parents taught me to say “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir.” They taught me to respect my elders and be polite. People in the south are really freaking nice, bless their hearts. At least on the surface.
Growing up, I was often told to “be sweet,” which I took to heart because literally every woman I’d ever known said it. If I got rowdy with my siblings, my mama said “be sweet.” If I said a crass word at school, my teacher said “be sweet.” And as I got older and started arguing politics with family members, horrified relatives would send me private messages: “Remember to be sweet, Mary Katherine!”
I am now a mother, choosing which of my life experiences I want to pass down to my children. We fry vegetables. We say “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir.” Football is a pretty big thing in our house, and shoes are optional in the backyard.
But I have to be honest: I’ll be damned if someone tells my daughter to “be sweet.”
Because, you see, there were times when that heirloom southern sweetness didn’t serve me well. When being nice actually endangered my life. And I almost forgot about this fact, until I popped into Starbucks yesterday to get some writing done.
As I got up for a refill, I noticed two college-aged girls seated across from me. They were at a table for two, headphones in and laptops open. The girls were clearly trying to work, which did nothing to deter a forty-something man from dragging his chair up to their table, uninvited. As he fired up a conversation, the girls shot each other a look that all women universally know without me having to describe.
I figured these girls would take care of business and ask that creep to piss off. Instead, they removed their headphones and plastered on fake smiles. They spent thirty minutes nodding their heads in feign interest as this jerk droned on about himself, why they should care about him, and everything in the world as it pertained to him.
Before becoming a mother, I would have seen this display and thought “Ew. Been there!”
But on this day, my blood boiled. Watching how he made himself at home, uninvited, in their personal space. The way this man talked down to them about their classes, asked for their social media handles, and inquired about their weekend plans. Mama Bear was ready to rage. Because these girls? They were very clearly uncomfortable.
But they were being SO. DAMN. NICE.
We train our daughters to be agreeable. Society values “sweet little girls” because they are easy to tolerate. But is that to their benefit? I don’t think so.
Ladies, let me ask you this: Have you ever put up with an awkward situation because you didn’t want to “hurt somebody’s feelings?” Have you ever set your comfort or well being aside, simply to avoid conflict? Did you think you were doing so because it was the nice thing to do?
I sure did. And I want to turn that ship around for my daughter’s sake.
Watching those young ladies squirm in their seats made me fearful for my daughter’s future. Am I raising a girl who can speak up for herself? She’s 18-months-old, and you know what? I have already found myself saying “Be sweet!” when she tells her brother “no!”
But not anymore. To hell with that.
Our household has adopted a new mantra, and I implore you to take it up with me.
Sweetness is about how you are received. Kindness? Well, it is about what’s right.
And the difference between the two can mean life or death in some situations. Girls can say no with kindness. It isn’t unkind to say, “I’m sorry you can’t sit here. I have work to do.” It isn’t unkind to say “stop” when you feel your partner is nearing a physical boundary. Maybe they won’t like it. Maybe it won’t be well-received. But who gives a crap? It isn’t about them.
I don’t want my daughter to be sweet at her own expense. At the threat of her own comfort, safety and happiness.
My husband and I no longer reprimand our daughter for yelling “no.” She is allowed agency without apology. We remind our children to be kind, sure. But in this house, sweetness is no longer a requirement.
I am not trying to raise a sweet little girl. I’m trying to raise a strong, confident woman.
I am fine with my daughter growing up and being called a “bitch” if that means she can speak up for herself. I want her to be able to draw her own boundaries and stick to them, without guilt. And if she becomes a sassy, strong, young lady who uses crass words, tells creeps to piss off, and argues politics with her relatives…well, I’ll be totally okay with that.
Actually, I’ll be quite proud.