If Anyone Told My Preschooler To ‘Act Like A Lady,’ I Would Be Furious

children sexismThere is a distinct difference between “being polite” and “behaving like a lady.” The inclusion of the term “lady” references a time when women were expected to defer to men, when they were thought to be delicate little flowers who needed protection. This belief spawned some very chivalrous and kind gestures, but it also underscored the idea that females were incapable of taking care of themselves. That’s why, no matter how well-intentioned it might be, I would not respond well to someone suggesting that my daughter, “act like a lady.” And I don’t think young boys should be admonished to behave like “gentlemen.”

In a piece on The New York Times ”Motherlode” blog, writer Lynn Messina discusses her problem with a teacher who frequently tells the little boys in her classroom that they need to be gentlemen.” Every day, the boys are expected to let the little girls go to the bathroom first after nap time. While plenty of parents find the practice endearing, Messina takes issue with the idea that her young son should be introduced to that very outmoded pattern of thinking. She explains:

“I don’t think it’s an overreaction to resent the fact that your son is being given an extra set of rules to follow simply because he’s a boy. His behavior, already constrained by a series of societal norms, now has additional restrictions. Worse than that, he’s actively being taught to treat girls differently,  something I thought we all agreed to stop doing, like, three decades ago. That the concept of selective privilege has been introduced in preschool of all places — the inner sanctum of fair play, the high temple of taking turns — is mind-boggling to me. How can you preach the ethos of sharing at the dramatic play center and ignore it 20 feet away at the toilet?”

I could not agree more! And I can’t help but think that more people would be offended if this type of instruction was directed towards girls. If teachers were saying, “Sally, you can’t  hold the door open for the class. You’re a lady and that’s a boy’s job,” we would all be furious. Why is it that young boys are not also allowed to grow up without these antiquated traditions and measures of protocol?

For decades, feminists have been trying to reconcile chivalry, manners and benevolent sexism. The age-old, “Who should open the door for whom?” and “Who pays for the first date?” debates have racked up just as much bitter, insulting dialogue as any other modern controversy.

The point that is often missed, the one that we overlook, is that manners do not have to be gender-specific. As Lynn Messina brilliantly points out, both boys and girls can help one another, respect one another. It doesn’t need to be about “ladies and gentlemen” and specific conduct per each gendered role:

“The real tragedy is that these girls aren’t being taught the fine art of yielding to others. Nobody is giving them the opportunity to be gallant.”

Children can be taught to be kind and respectful of their peers regardless of whatever gender they identify with. Human beings can open doors or pull out chairs or pick up the tab for one another without consideration of sex. We can just be good, decent people, no old-fashioned labels required.

That is the lesson that I want to teach my daughter, not to be a lady, but to be a good person.

(Photot: Lucky_Irene/Shutterstock)

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Shelly-Lloyd/826469442 Shelly Lloyd

    I’m kind of surprised that this classroom only has one bathroom, instead of male/female toilets. Anyways, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be first come first serve at the bathroom regardless of sex (unless of course a child has a medical condition where he or she had difficult in this area then they should go first.)

  • Justme

    Then you just tell your daughter that “well-behaved women rarely make history.”

  • Not a parent. MockMyInsights.

    While I understand your point, I’ve always believed that the societal expectations associated with phrases like this only have as much power as you give them.

    I’ll probably use the phrase “Act like a lady” and “Please be a gentlemen” with my kids. But a lady isn’t some delicate flower waiting to be rescued. It means she is kind, strong, smart, brave, helpful…and a whole list of other traits. Red Eva Mcmurrough was a queen (a much higher title then lady) and she rode into battle. Eleanor Roosevelt was a lady who didn’t let anyone put her down. These phrases means what you make them mean.

    Now I know that there are outside societal expectations tied in with the phrases..but that’s true of anything. Girls with red hair are loud, boys are strong (while girls are ‘lean’) and cheerleaders are delicate flowers.

    Is it weird and outdated that the teacher makes the boys wait? Sure, it’s a little strange. But why not explain to your kids about outdated notions of girls being weaker, teach them it’s crazy (and that the teacher means no harm–because she likely doesn’t and that’s important to remember) talk to the teacher, and tell your kid to go to the bathroom when they need to. They’re going to have to deal with these outdated notions (and others) their whole lives. Start teaching them that gentlemen and ladies stand up for what’s right and follow their hearts. It’s a much better lesson then “Using the word lady or gentlemen is bad.”

    Also–I apologize for the rambly nature of this comment–it’s been a long day.

    • Lisa

      I get what you’re saying, and completely agree. If I ever have kids, I’m certain the phrases “act like a lady/gentleman” will be coming out. Heck, I use them at work all the time, but that’s a different scenario.

      I think the real issue is the intention behind the words. To me, acting like a lady/gentleman is about being polite, engaging in appropriate social standards, etc. Using outdated stereotypes on the other hand? That has nothing to do with ladylike or gentleman-like behavior. I doubt I’ll become furious over the word choice, but will be watching to see how those words are being defined by the authority figure.

    • Lawcat

      I agree. I always associated “act like a lady” with being polite…and not sitting with my legs pulled up to my chest while in a dress :).

      Like NotAParent said, words only have as much power as you give them.

      And like Andrea, being a gentleman or lady means treating everyone with respect, regardless of gender. My husband is an excellent example of a ‘gentleman’ and I’m by no means a dainty wilting flower.

  • http://twitter.com/raisealithuman Stacey Shubitz

    You bring up excellent points here. I’ve thought about it from the girl’s perspective since I have a daughter. However, I never thought about it from the parent of a boy’s perspective, but the gentleman thing is too much! I want all of the kids to hold the door for each other!

    • Andrea

      I have two sons. I don’t think the gentleman thing is too much.

    • StephKay

      Exactly. I have a daughter, and in twelve weeks I’ll have a son too. If anything I think my daughter will be taught more “gentlemanly” things sooner in our home, simply because she’s three years older and I want her to take care of her brother, hold doors for him, protect him, while he’s still a little guy. Beyond that I can’t fathom teaching different expectations on manners and basic civility to my children. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that both kids to be taught that it’s just the right thing to do to look out for those around you, take turns, let your guest have the first go at whatever game youre playing and so on. Human decency is not a gendered prospect. My daughter is a pretty chivalrous little chicky, and I’m always a little sad to see that her rescue games often involve a “girlfriend” damsel in distress that she needs to rescue. The gentleman versus lady binary is so pervasive in children’s entertainment, it feels like such an uphill battle having to constantly address why in max and ruby Ruby is always scolding him for his loud toys while she puts on make-up, or why Mickey Mouse Clubhouse has daisy and Minnie putting on fashion shows and selling hair bows. Thank god they have so many awesome feminist men and women, and even genderqueer folks in their lives to show that the gender binary just simply doesn’t exist beyond a series of of groundless expectations.

  • http://www.suburbansweetheart.com/ Suburban Sweetheart

    YES. Love this.

  • Andrea

    I don’t have daughters. I have two sons and yes, I AM raising them to be gentlemen. I want them to be kind and respectful to everyone, not just ladies. A gentleman is polite, has good manners, and treats everyone with respect REGARDLESS of gender. However, I am teaching them to be respectful of girls and their bodies. I would DIE if I ever found out the treated a girl in a douchy manner. I would be MORTIFIED if they became the type of boy that would make the father of a girl cringe at the thought of his daughter being anywhere near him.

    This isn’t about “restrictions”. Gender relations are important and boys need to know how to treat a girl with respect. And while I don’t necessarily agree with making them wait until the girls use the bathroom first, there is something to be said for teaching them politeness.

  • Lastango

    Sounds like you’re hoping those “old fashioned labels” of lady and gentleman have no purpose.

    What if you’re wrong.

    • meteor_echo

      Well she isn’t. Women don’t have to be dainty freaking flowers and men don’t need to be chivalrous to the point of smarminess. I would shove a combat boot up the ass of anyone who’d tell me to “act like a lady”, and my boyfriend would frying pan-smash anyone who would jest that cooking, gardening and sewing is not “manly”.

    • Not a parent. MockMyInsights.

      While I might not get quite that violent…I agree. Plus, honestly, it’s more fun to screw with people’s perceptions of you then it is to frying pan smash them. :)

    • Lastango

      Congratulations. You’re not only free from any need to be a lady (and your boyfriend from being a gentleman), you’re apparently also free from any need to be civil.

      Do you see any risks in that, for yourself or for society?

    • meteor_echo

      “Congratulations. You’re not only free from any need to be a lady (and your boyfriend from being a gentleman).”
      You bet I am. I got rid of that need back in school, where I learned that being a “lady” is the same as being a doormat. Now that I’m not a doormat, I’m apparently a threat.

      “Do you see any risks in that, for yourself or for society?”
      As long as people are nice to me, I’m nice to them. The moment they stop being nice, they’re treated exactly like they treat me.
      How does it feel, living your life understanding every single thing literally?

    • Lastango

      “As long as people are nice to me, I’m nice to them.”
      That sure isn’t the vibe from your post.
      …and if by “understanding every single thing literally” you mean that I actually read what you wrote, I’m guilty. Or are you saying you didn’t write what you meant, and I should have figured that out?

    • meteor_echo

      I don’t owe you being nice. In most comments I read from you, you prove to be somebody who loves provoking people and who disagrees with the viewpoint of 99% of the articles on this portal. Pot, you’re calling the kettle black.
      And yes, I prefer talking to people who don’t suffer from metaphor gangrene. Sorry, you have it

    • Lastango

      At least you’re honest.
      Also, talking to people who rally around all the same themes you do probably means you can speak loosely and still understand each other. You never have to defend or explain yourself or your tone, because they know you are right-thinking. Must be comfy, and reassuring. It’s good to belong.

    • meteor_echo

      See, this is exactly the kind of shit that I hate about people like you. Do you really think that calling me somebody with a herd mentality and then thinly veiling it a half-decent answer? You really need to get better at this. Also, I’m curious why you protect cliched gender roles so dearly. Anything special about them?

    • Lastango

      Maybe you should read your own comments. Were you trying to say you really do enjoy sharing viewpoints with people you don’t agree with, and you can do more than just punch people with your smashmouth or — since I don’t want to be too literal — “shove a combat boot up the ass”?

      Perhaps you’re too angry about my comments in general to bring yourself to respond to one of them on its own merits or flaws. You have to lash out.

      Tell you what. Next time I see you go head-on against the mainstream thinking here I’ll give you full credit for it.

    • meteor_echo

      I didn’t hear you answer my question: what’s so special about the outdated gender roles that you have to be appointed as their precious guardian?

      I am nice in comments to nice people. Obviously, if I’m not nice to you… well, I’m sure that you’ll figure it out. Then again, I’d rather have the skill to punch people with my smashmouth or my other, equally smashing body parts, than just act like your classic early Disney princess.
      Outdated gender roles, dear Lastango, harm everybody – like every monolithic, cliched personality frames that have been cast hell knows when – because, if somebody tries to fit them on you and something won’t fit in, they’ll cut off what doesn’t fit at the cost of your personality. I’ve noticed this time and again, when awesome, intelligent, free-thinking people have been scolded and harassed by the whole society to fit the lousy social expectations that make nobody happy, including being artificially weak or macho. I don’t like people who stand behind this outdated way of thinking, and if I come off as a opinionated, loud smashmouth-possesser while talking to these people, so be it.
      I stand for my point, I’ve yet to see you stand for yours.

    • Lastango

      Thanks for taking a moment to explain your perspective.

    • meteor_echo

      But I’ve yet to hear yours.

  • hillbilleter

    Sounds like the author has some personal problems. Acting like a lady only means to employ self discipline, respect yourself, and to respect the rights of others. If that’s not a good thing to her, she’s in dire need of something she isn’t giving herself.

    • Dlee

      Generally I’d agree that being a lady means to be well-behaved and polite, as does being a gentleman, but not at the expense of teaching little boys that their female counterparts are weaker or somehow inferior and in dire need of a man’s protection. It’s the outdated connotations of “women and children first” that I have a problem with which is exampled by how the girls lead the line at toilet breaks. Not that you (regardless of your gender) should be kind and courteous and hold doors for people or other respectful behaviour if they need it.

    • hillbilleter

      Who said that acting like a lady means being weaker or more inferior? Far from it. Being a lady means being able to handle 30 emergencies, run a household, hold down a job, and raise a family without getting your knickers in a twist and losing your cool. The women in my family when I was growing up wore dresses, but when it was needed they cut trees, worked a garden, held jobs, did carpentry, worked in the coal mines, drove trucks, ran a store, whatever was needed whenever it was needed. They were all ladies. Very capable ladies who were respected in their churches and communities and by the men in the family too. I don’t know why the assumption that lady=weak is even out there. That’s malarkey. Just because someone held the door open for them didn’t mean they couldn’t have held the door themselves – and probably repaired the door, changed the locks & hinges and painted it too. I’m proud to be a lady. People generally treat you with respect when you treat yourself with respect, and that’s the heart of being a lady.
      And the “women and children first is courteous, an honor given freely, not demeaning. Men are amazed by women, and especially by capable women.

  • AP

    I taught kids, and I often told them to behave like “ladies and gentlemen,” whenever I wanted them to be polite and refined. I meant it to mean “polite, refined, grown-up.”I felt it was important to teach kids that there is socially acceptable behavior for human beings, regardless of gender, and there is no gender-neutral term for “refined adult” that is widely recognized. A lot of kids really want to feel and act grown-up, and throwing them this little bone helps nurture that desire and motivates them to behave better.

    I never enforced gender roles unless it fell into a potential child sex abuse situation, ie: a parent allowed a little girl to wear shorts and no shirt. It was also important because I saw girls bullying boys fairly often, and it is wrong to teach the boys to accept abuse from women. Gender roles are the parent’s decision- my job was to treat all kids equally.

  • http://www.makingloveinthemicrowave.com/ Aja Jackson

    I feel like you’re assigning your own meaning to “act like a lady.” “Lady” and “weak” are not one in the same. And I do believe teaching boys to behave like “gentlemen” is important. Not only because there is nothing wrong with having a man hold a door for you on a date or anywhere else, but it also helps begin to train little boys, who live in a society that often teaches them otherwise, to think of someone else’s needs ahead of their own. I think that in teaching your children to assign “weakness” and “strength” to those terms and actions, you’re actually doing more harm than the teacher giving the lesson.

  • http://www.facebook.com/luv2cooktoomuch Amanda Geyer

    My son always holds the door for me. It is good manners. I don’t see why manners are to go away because woman have arm strength to open a door. That isn’t the point of manners…

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