There 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.