Empowerment

Why I Won’t Be Teaching My Daughter To Be A “Good Sport”

It’s not her job to smile and keep the peace.

Top view of lovely little girl sleeping soundly under mom's arms at home
Images By Tang Ming Tung/DigitalVision/Getty Images

I’m 7, standing in the bowling alley in smelly, too-big shoes, and my cousin has stolen my favorite ball, the one that looks like a purple galaxy. When I start to cry, my uncle says, “Did you think you were going to be a pro bowler? Only babies cry in public.” As everyone laughs, I pinch off my tears, ducking to hide a crestfallen face.

At 12, my photo gets selected by the local K-Mart to be enlarged as an advertisement for their photo department. An aunt points out the run in my stockings — magnified times 10 on the giant sign — through which my big toe sticks. “Couldn’t they have picked a better picture of you? One where you don’t look homeless?” I try to join the laughter around me.

These are small cruelties that perhaps every child has experienced, squashing down the ballooning shame so they aren’t laughed at by adults or peers. Because when you’re little, one of the greatest grievances is being seen as babyish. Too sensitive. The initial ridicule of being singled out gets overshadowed by a larger fear of being ostracized. So you play along. It turns out these moments don’t lessen in adulthood, particularly if you’re seen as an easy target for social performers. The problem is that malice, and even actual abuse, often gets cloaked in good-natured teasing. The harmless jokes aren’t so harmless after all.

Fast-forward a couple of decades: I’m in my early 30s, at a company-sponsored lunch with one-too-many margaritas, and a co-worker announces to the group that I remind him of Yoko Ono. As everyone titters, I smile faintly into my drink. I’m a good sport; I know the game. What’s the alternative, really? To call him out and make everyone uncomfortable over a claim of a microaggression they’d sooner forget? To diminish the goodwill we’ve created as a collective?

Months later, while I’m pregnant, a stranger walks up to me at a restaurant and guffaws, “What are you, carrying twins or something?” (I’m not, though I’m nine months pregnant at the time.) I call him a shithead. He looks startled to see I’ve gone off-script and returns to his own table, muttering about how people are too sensitive these days.

These moments represent a pattern all too familiar to me and many other women, perhaps. We are conditioned to become social lubricants, indulging in small talk and jokes that frequently come at the cost of our own dignity. Self-deprecation is our second language. It’s not fun to be the butt of the joke, but what alternative is there when the cost of speaking up can be so dire, professionally and personally?

My 5-year-old daughter, in all her great empathy and perceptiveness, is easily bruised. Like most children, she hasn’t yet filtered what adults find ridiculous. She says what’s on her mind. Once, when a relative laughed at an earnest declaration of hers, I saw her lower lip begin to tremble, a sign of her overflowing hurt. I felt something break inside of me — an accumulation, perhaps, of all the retorts I’ve subdued over my own lifetime. I said, “Please stop laughing at her.” He replied, “Sorry, can’t. I laugh at everything. She’ll have to get over it.”

Those who are sensitive are frequently told, perhaps not as bluntly as my relative expressed, to get over their own emotions. They are asked to be good sports in the name of communal ribbing. (The teasers, however, are not as frequently requested to stifle their taunts because — personal freedom.) So once again, an individual’s instinct gets buried in an attempt to maintain the group’s friendliness. But what does that communal goodwill mean if it conceals all the things that are allowed: sexism, racism, ableism; suffocation of the self; and marginalization of people who don’t fit into typical frameworks of being?

What some forget is that the act of teasing is that it is only a successful exchange if both parties agree to it. The truly harmless kind of teasing can only exist if there is trust between both parties, an acknowledging that the power dynamics are even. (Otherwise, we fall into the territory of bullying, a much more loaded topic.) When adults tease children, the power dynamics are seldom even. Yet, for some adults, ribbing the little people around them is an established pastime, often done in a sly way meant to exclude the child from a joke.

At a coffee shop, I overheard a boy ask for a donut. His father said, not so much to the boy as the whole coffee shop at large, “I don’t think you really need another donut, do you, kiddo? One’s plenty for you, yeah?” Everyone took in the boy’s shirt, stretched too tight over his belly and his round cheeks. There was an awkward silence as the boy’s face fell. Not only was he the butt of the joke, but he’d also been thrust into that position by someone he trusted.

I’m not perfect; I’ve caught myself teasing my own daughter over seemingly innocuous things. I’ve laughed at her inability to brush her teeth in a timely manner and her frequent tendency to wear clothes inside out. To me, it feels gentle in spirit, an extension of the cozy humor that my husband and I exchange. But it’s not like that for her. I watch her withdraw from me. She says, “That’s not nice. I don’t like being made fun of, Mama.” And I’m chastened. She’s right, as she so often is. Even if I don’t see the aggression in my own words, she does, and my intent does not overrule my impact. I apologize and try to do better next time.

At a renaissance fair a few years ago, a performer pulled me on stage as an unwilling volunteer. I resisted — physically resisted — for many reasons, chief among them my utter humiliation at being in a public spotlight. But he pulled me by the hand and, with the crowd’s eyes on me, I didn’t want to create a fuss. He spun jokes at my expense the whole time as I tried to laugh gamely. Then he forced me to hold a banana in my hand as he unpeeled it with a bullwhip from across the stage. To this day, I’m baffled by why I did not toss the banana at his head and remove myself from the stage at that very moment. But I stayed. If there’s a lesson to be learned in all this, it’s that you must never let a doublet-clad man named Dante Fettuccine whip a banana out of your hand at 60 miles per hour simply because you don’t want to look like a bad sport.

Left with what lessons I will be teaching my daughter, I consider how important it is that she finds her voice. Yes, of course, she must pick her battles, and she definitely should not go about calling everyone a shithead, but more importantly: She must understand that her own dignity is worth battling for. I hope she can forget everyone else’s definitions of what it means to be a good sport and instead forge her own ideas about what it means to be a compassionate being with righteous boundaries, one who can speak up for herself and others when the moment demands.

Thao Thai is a writer and editor based out of Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her work has been published in Kitchn, Eater, Cubby, The Everymom, cupcakes and cashmere, and other publications. Her debut novel, Bayan Moon, comes out in 2023 from HarperCollins.