My five-year-old daughter, Ali, is currently wearing nothing but a pair of underpants—and about a gallon of paint. “You look like a Wild Thing!” I tell her. “You be Max, Mommy!” she says, and soon we are lost in play, stomping all around my parents’ backyard in Maine.
Ten minutes earlier, we were painting rocks we’d gathered from a nearby beach. She dipped her paintbrush in the grey-green stew she’d made by mixing all the colors together, then dabbed some on her arm. We locked eyes, hers saying, “Look what I did!” while also asking, “Can I keep going?” In that moment I felt such empathy for her; I felt like I was her, dying to know what it felt like to be covered in paint from head to toe.
I wanted to say, “Go for it!” Instead, I said, “I wish you’d asked first, baby,” because it’s my job to teach her to know the rules, to follow them, and to get permission before veering into any uncharted waters.
Being an authority figure is my least favorite part of parenting. Role model? Love it. Coach? Caregiver? Check, check. But authority figure? I can’t stand them myself. I rarely think they have my best interests at heart. So why would I want to be one?
I wasn’t always anti-authority; in fact, for my entire childhood, I was quite the opposite. To wit: A few years back, I came across a worksheet I’d completed in second grade. The prompt: “If aliens landed in the field behind the school, I would . . .” My response: “Alert the proper authorities.” I’ve spent much of my adult life untangling from the compliance of my formative years. But here I am as a parent, where so often, my job is to tell my daughter everything she can’t do.
My husband, Jordan, and I have just spent a year focused on teaching Ali to adjust to the rules and structure of her pre-kindergarten classroom at a New York City public school—the opposite of this wide-open natural space where we can be wild, messy, and free. It’s been extraordinarily painful. I’ve felt like I’ve been aiding in her social conditioning in a way that’s in the best interest of efficiency, but not the best interest of her development as a human being. It’s been especially painful considering that I, at age forty-one, am at the opposite end of this journey—working hard to let go of conditioning from school, my parents, and the culture at large that’s kept me from being who I really am: an artist, instead of a people-pleasing overachiever.
At our parent-teacher conference last fall, Ali’s pre-K teacher, Ms. P, let us know that Ali, who was four at the time, was “off the charts” academically, and was also frequently not doing as she was told. “I’ve offered her stickers if she listens to me,” Ms. P said, “and I’ve threatened to take away outdoor playtime if she doesn’t, but nothing works.” Ali was wiggling around instead of sitting still on her mat, twirling instead of standing still in line, drawing on the table instead of just on her paper, eating pretzel crumbs off the floor. For my husband, this was painful to hear. He’d often been the “bad kid” growing up, at a time when ADHD was less understood or accepted than it is today. This conversation brought back upsetting memories.
I, on the other hand, took pleasure in our daughter’s disobedience.
If I’m being politic, I’ll tell you I felt sorry for the burden Ali’s behavior was placing on her teacher, grossed out by the fact that she was eating off the floor, and embarrassed that she was drawing on the table (she knew better). And all of this is a little bit true. But what’s more true is that despite the challenges, I would rather have a daughter who acts out than one who falls in line.
Conditioning obedience in girls has dangerous consequences. One out of every three women on this planet of ours—one in three —is the victim of some form of violence, according to UN Women . In the US we earn eighty cents for every dollar a man makes (for women of color, this number is even lower), according to the Association of University Women . And there is currently a pussy-grabbing woman hater in the White House.
It may feel like a leap to go from making my daughter stand still in pre-K to the most extreme evils of the patriarchy, but our kids are sponges. They internalize everything and accept it as normal. Ms. P later gave all the girls in Ali’s class pink toys as a graduation present, with green toys for the boys. “I actually prefer green,” I told Ali and a bunch of her female friends. “You DO?” they asked, astonished. Soon after that, Ali told me that she didn’t want to wear a red T-shirt she owned because it was “for a boy.” What other gender stereotypes might her teachers soon imply or express outright?
Seemingly small interactions can shape kids in big ways; harmful, limiting beliefs don’t just gallop in on horseback and announce themselves. Given the extent to which the world is stacked against girls—girls of color, especially, but also white, upper-middle-class girls like Ali—I believe it’s my job as her mother, her primary female defender, to err on the side of vigilance. Teaching her to act not out of any sense of right and wrong, not out of empathy, but because she’ll get a sticker/a cookie/a shiny toy, sets her on a dangerous path, in a world that offers girls plenty of incentives to do things that hurt them: Diet so people will tell you you’re thin and pretty. Let people interrupt you because calling it out would be socially awkward. Let people touch you in ways you don’t want because calling it out would make you a trouble ma ker (in our house, we have a rule: Ali decides who can touch her body. Period. If she doesn’t feel like being tickled, or hugging, or getting kisses, that’s the final word). Pursue the career path or relationship your parents expect of you so you don’t disappoint them. Accept the first salary your employer offers instead of negotiating for more so they’ll think you’re a team player (while paying your male counterpart more). And on, and on, and on. Girls and women are bombarded constantly with messages about being “good” and thin and virtuous, only to be assaulted both literally and figuratively by a world that fears and hates us.
In this context, you’re goddamn right I want my four-year-old daughter to twirl.
I want her to want that more than she wants to please her teacher or earn a bauble. I want her to be able to be Ali, not some trained automaton who slowly but surely loses sight of what she actually wants.
Am I projecting? Certainly. I am a living example of what happens when you over-train obedience in a young girl.
Like Ali, I’m an only child. Growing up in suburban Maryland, I never doubted my parents’ love for me or for each other. We were close, and when we disagreed with one another, we talked (and talked, and talked) about it. We watched prime-time TV together in the family room. We went to theater and traveled to New York City, London, and the Pacific Northwest.
I joked that my house was as neat as a museum (because it was). My mom and I gave my dad “phone wipes” as a gag gift one year, poking fun at how part of his post-dinner cleanup ritual was dipping a cloth in sudsy water and wiping down the phone on the kitchen wall.
One time, I left my shoes in the living room after my mother asked me not to. The intensity of her disappointment is something I imagine most parents would reserve for discovering that their child was not only using drugs, but also manufacturing and distributing them to the entire Eastern Seaboard.
Another time, I got a single B in high school, and we had to have a talk about it, because, as my mom explained, “You usually get A’s, so I just want to understand what happened.” Her focus on the single blemish on my record annoyed me, but I couldn’t argue with her logic.
Back in first grade, my teacher, Miss Kressler, had told me my parents wanted me to be perfect. Later that day, when they got home from work, they found me hiding behind the living room curtains; when pressed, I told them what she’d said, and they vehemently denied it (and had a few choice words for her the next day). It was a hell of a thing for a teacher to say to a six-year-old, but it wasn’t untrue; ultimately, I came to the same conclusion on my own. I was to be well-mannered, well-groomed, and get the perfect grades I was capable of—or I would disappoint them, or we’d have to “have a talk.” It was so much easier to just be the way they wanted me to be.
And so, as I entered adulthood, I found myself with no idea about who the hell I really was or what the hell I really wanted. Each job I got was based on achievements and qualities that meant less and less to me: Good grades, my impressive alma mater, my ability to make charming small talk. I couldn’t shake the gnawing emptiness I felt. I wanted my work and my life to feel meaningful, and they didn’t.
Then, in my late twenties, I started writing and performing, and every time I did, I felt like I was coming home to my authentic self. Growing up, I’d felt more at home on stage than anywhere else—perhaps, I realize now, because acting on stage allowed me a break from the exhausting work of performing perfection in real life. I filled dozens of journals, and often felt like those pages were the only place I could be my true self. And yet, I internalized external voices to such an extent, telling me this wasn’t who I was, and this wasn’t a legitimate or responsible path, that at forty-one, I’m only now giving myself permission to pursue writing and performing as a career.
It’s been agonizing, this process of relearning who I am. Must I sit back and watch my daughter go through this same circular journey? Must we, as a friend of mine recently mused, let our kids lose themselves, so that as adults, they can find themselves again?
Credit where credit is due: Ms. P ended up spending a lot of time with us over the course of the year, trying to make things better. She filled out a daily behavior chart where Ali got a smiley face if she did what she was told, and a detailed note when she didn’t. Against my better judgment, we started using videos and desserts as bribes. “If you get at least eight smileys at school today, you can watch My Little Pony .” “Great job getting ten smileys! You earned a cookie!”
Good girl! Here’s your biscuit.
It was painful, but I felt pressure to do something. And I didn’t know what else to do. Over time, Ali got into less trouble at school, but as soon as we stopped the behavior charts (and associated rewards), she backslid—surprise, surprise.
Too often, it feels like we adults grasp desperately at rules for our children to compensate for the complete disorder we feel in our own lives. It’s no secret that parenting is exhausting; it’s easier to say “sit down and shut up, because I said so” than it is to figure out why a child is doing neither. What’s more, it often feels as if perpetuating the myth of order for them will allow us to convince ourselves that such order truly exists. Yes, kids need rules to help keep them safe, and to keep them from hurting other people, but I think if we as adults took a hard look at the rules we make, we’d see that a lot of them are about our own convenience or hang-ups, not necessarily a child’s best interests.
I don’t want to overcompensate for my own experiences by encouraging Ali to behave like an oppositional nightmare; that’s not in anyone’s best interests. But when I see so much energy going into getting her to comply, instead of getting her to truly thrive—well, that isn’t in her best interests, either.
There are certain rules I take very seriously. If someone says “hello,” you say “hello” back; you don’t need to say anything beyond that, but you say “hello.” And, of course, I am serious about safety. Apparently Ali’s rogue twirling was a safety issue, because she could have bumped into other kids. What if all the kids twirled? I get it, I do. But why was she twirling? To me, that was the question that demanded examination. Was she bored? Anxious? Was she seeking negative attention? Did she simply have pent-up physical energy? Yes, part of our response needed to be to help her understand and comply with the behavior expected of her at school (and the reasons for those expectations). But part of our response, too, should have included figuring out what was triggering the behavior in the first place. Was it a psychological issue? Was it a combination of her nature, and the environment at this particular school being a bad fit?
As Ms. P continued to express concerns about Ali’s ability to follow the rules, we considered our next move. Should we sign her up for play therapy? Did she have ADHD or ADD (it runs in the family)? Was she “gifted” (that does, too), her behavioral issues an expression of a brain that wasn’t getting engaged in the ways it needed to be?
Eventually, thanks to a local parenting listserv, Jordan and I found a tutoring service focused on teaching kids about self-regulation and executive functioning. It was a godsend. She loved her tutor, and after three or four sessions, we noticed her becoming more flexible—able to agree to things she may not passionately want to do, but was willing, now, to do anyway. I appreciated this change, whether it was because of her tutor or getting older or some combination of the two. It made her easier to live with, and it didn’t leave me feeling dirty—it felt like we’re activating abilities within her, rather than manipulating her for our own benefit.
One afternoon, Ms. P reported to us, breathlessly: “Ali lined up the numbered puzzle pieces in reverse order, with nine first, then eight, all the way down to zero. I told her that was wrong, that zero was the lowest number, but she explained she was thinking of negative numbers.” Recognizing that Ali needed some additional stimulation, Ms. P spent time one-on-one with her during choice time, teaching her elements of the kindergarten curriculum. Ali loved it. But there were seventeen students in Ms. P’s pre-K class, and she could only take so much time with one of them.
I felt like I was trying to get my daughter to fit into a system rather than the system serving my daughter. I know public schools have to meet the needs of many different kinds of kids, but that too easily becomes an excuse for letting our education system off the hook for all the ways it fails us.
Our schools reflect our values as a society and incubate our future. Doing what authority figures tell you to is not the most important skill. Not in a democracy, not when we need activists and artists and entrepreneurs who see the status quo not as an endpoint but as an opening offer. Not when you are a member of an oppressed group, whether as a girl or a person of color or a Muslim or queer, when you already face such an uphill battle; you need to learn agency, not submission.
I’m not encouraging anarchy in our schools, but rather, democracy. Instead of rewarding children primarily for taking up less space, I wish we spent more time encouraging them to be true individuals who explore their curiosity and creativity to its fullest extent, while also learning how to exist within a community—not because they are browbeaten or bribed into it, but because they have empathy. Schools, too, should give every child a voice in their community, so that if something about it isn’t working for them, they can become agents of change. This is the way to raise kids who will become the adults our world needs.
If the only danger to Ali’s school being a wrong fit for her was hurting her chances of getting into Harvard one day, I wouldn’t care. But when the danger is potentially boredom, frustration, and behavioral issues—with the potential to cause our family extreme stress and hurt her self-esteem—I care quite a bit.
With the biggest support Ali’s gotten in the past year coming from outside of her public school, perhaps it’s no surprise that lately Jordan and I have been looking at the websites for progressive private schools. We can’t afford it, but still I find myself thinking, “There must be a way.” At the same time, I feel like a coward. A stronger person would fight to make the public system better. And maybe I’ll ultimately fight that larger fight.
In the meantime, though, there is the matter of my daughter’s immediate well-being. She has such a big personality, and I never want her to think that’s a bad thing—and I never want to think it’s a bad thing, even when it’s less convenient for the adults who spend time with her.
A friend recently had a party where the dress code was “dope as fuck.” I wrote to him to say that I had nothing that was remotely “dope,” let alone “dope as fuck.” “Just ask Ali what to wear,” he counseled. I recently saw her come out of her room in nothing other than a hat shaped like a birthday cake, princess underpants, and fuzzy moose slippers, holding a purple hula-hoop like a frame around her face. Andy Warhol would have been proud. I know I was.
Back in my parents’ yard in Maine, I calculate that the paint we’re playing with is washable, and I say to my daughter, “Go ahead. Have fun.”
And she does.