The Other P-Word And Why It Needs To Go

by Jennifer Harrison
praetorianphoto / iStock

It used to be the f-word. The torch was later passed to the c-word. From time to time, I’ll hear an x-word and have to look it up. The alphabet is fraught with hazardous beginning letters, all trained at shock and awe, inspiring shame, inciting giggles, and tickling our tongues and refined sensibilities.

No consonant is innocent. No vowel is incorruptible.

The notorious p-word came up in a recent election. (Which election was that again? I think it was mentioned a time or two in the media…). That single word threw the country into a moral tailspin. I have no personal beef with the p-word. I’ve even used it for the occasional cat or willow.

There is another word however. A p-word that can dig up my ire and twist around my last nerve. That word is polite. And I don’t want it thrust upon my daughters.

I have two girls. They are respectful — usually. They accept criticism and blame with grace — once in a while. And they never, ever talk back — to anyone but their parents. We made sure they got that memo long before potty training began.

Yet there are times when they need to speak their minds, to put people — young or old — respectfully in their place. But because of the standard we’ve set, along with the fear and stigma we’ve instilled of being im(p-word), my daughters have sometimes gotten walked over. Their mother will even admit to falling victim to it every so often.

So why do we continue to leverage the p-word against our otherwise-good girls, especially when the occasion demands a little talking back? And why do we continue to conflate that criterion with a lack of self-advocacy? It’s an outdated mandate that’s keeping us barefoot and voiceless in the kitchen. And the word needs to be ousted.

My 10-year-old is a gymnast. A cautious and slightly acrophobic one, but she loves the sport and gives it her all. Frustrated by her fear, though, her coach sometimes defaults to the school of insult-related motivation:

– “What are you? A baby?”

– “The 7-year-olds are doing this!”

– “You should be hurling yourself off the beam and into a free fall like everyone else.”

If he knew my daughter, he’d know this approach doesn’t jibe with her. It just freezes her up, shuts her down, and kills her confidence. After a recent tirade at practice, she ran to me, crying. “He told me I’d never be a decent gymnast if I don’t push myself.” She said she wanted to quit.

OK, so the coach is right in theory. I’m aware of the requirements for progress. But while sticks and stones only cause temporary bruises, name-calling can cause permanent scars. And while I could confront him about his choice of language, I instead encourage my daughter to self-advocate, to squash the insults, and to give him the indisputable stink-eye. But she’s too — wait for it — polite.

This is not an isolated incident. Most women have been catcalled to “Give us a smile, will you?” We have learned to grin and bear it, to wrap our complaints in apology, and to sandwich critiques in compliments. We are taught to bite our tongue when a strange man breathes on our necks and comply when our great-uncles demand a kiss (oh, that itchy beard on my cheek!).

We teach quiet acceptance of bad behavior when we should instead be giving voice lessons.

There is a very distinct place and time for “That doesn’t work for me,” or “I’m sorry, but no,” or “Thanks for the advice, Coach, but I don’t respond to threats. And by the way, I’m working without a net here!”

Speaking up for ourselves is not the same as rudeness. Rudeness is unacceptable, but being our own heroes is imperative. And just as we slap mosquitoes when they land on our skin, we need to learn to bark back at the dogs who bear their teeth at us.

Ultimately, I’m happy my girls are good girls. Even when they veer into the dark side (my other daughter’s a teenager — enough said!). And I will continue to cultivate kindness, tolerance, compassion, and understanding in them. We are not barbarians, after all.

But if anyone gets near my kid with unreasonable expectations of the p-word, I will stand beside them as they let the whoop-(a-word) fly. Even if gets them called the b-word. That word, I can live with.