My youngest child and only daughter, Lucy, started kindergarten yesterday.
She had prepared for the big day for weeks with an unbridled enthusiasm her three older brothers never displayed: She demanded to shop for her own school supplies and to place them in the cart all by herself; she filled her rainbow-covered backpack, admiring her new pencils and folders; she wanted to pick out her own dress and her favorite fancy sandals to meet her new teacher. As I told her principal, no one has ever been more excited to go to kindergarten than Lucy.
When we walked toward her classroom yesterday morning, Lucy was literally bouncing with that excitement. “I want to go to this school forever, Mom. I love everything about it,” she said with a giggle. “Oh, and tomorrow, you don’t even need to walk me. I know what to do already.”
Part of me is, of course, bursting with pride and thrilled for my daughter that she loves school so much. Another part, though, worries that she is so much better at this than her brothers were at her age. She follows rules so well — almost too well. Sometimes, I fear that her desire to be deemed “good” will keep her from taking risks or speaking up when she needs to.
Lucy told me about the clip system in her new classroom — “If you don’t follow the rules, your clip on the wall gets moved from green to yellow,” she patiently explained to me. “But if you stay on green all week, you get to visit the treasure box!” It’s the same clip-and-treasure-box reward system each of my boys has had in classrooms over the past 11 years. The difference is, with Lucy, I know she will never let her clip even catch sight of yellow. Lucy’s clip will stay on green.
Taylor Swift, too, is someone who likes to keep her clip on green, I can tell. Having long followed her career and attended her “1989” concert as a bonafide 41-year-old fan (with no teenage girl in accompaniment to give me an excuse), I know her as a strong, ambitious, talented performer and businesswoman who likes to stay on brand — all $280 million of it. Even when she gets embroiled in public feuds and debates, Swift has always seemed to quickly run from any controversial spotlight.
But Swift did not run away from testifying in Denver during a trial over a 2013 incident in which Swift says a Denver radio DJ, David Mueller, groped her during a photo op at a concert meet-and-greet. She was, in fact, very blunt and very clear about what happened to her. And when the opposing counsel raised the question of why Swift would finish hours of meeting with fans if she had been assaulted and really was upset, her mother Andrea testified that the moment “made me, as a parent, question why I taught her to be so polite.”
I understand Andrea Swift’s question. As a mother, I have spent a lot of time worrying about whether my children are polite enough. I prompt their “pleases” and “thank yous,” I nudge them to shake hands and meet eyes, I give them the patented mom glare if they don’t respond to adults who have asked them a question. But thinking about Andrea Swift’s words and about what happened to her daughter, I think maybe I have been mistaken in what my parenting goal is. What I really want for any of my children is not for them to be “polite” — which somehow erases their own needs from the equation completely — but to show respect to those who give them respect in return, and to be unafraid to call out those who don’t.
For my three boys, this is not an issue. They freely express anger, and they don’t try to hide it if they feel tired or cranky. But for Lucy, I worry that even I, much less society, have different expectations. This summer, I found myself losing my patience with her when she had meltdowns over details I deemed unimportant — her constant need to be the one to push the elevator button, or her wish to wear her sparkly-but-impractical flip-flops instead of her much more reliable sneakers, or her anger if a brother didn’t agree with her choice of DVD to watch.
Lucy can’t have her way all the time, and sometimes, I have to have the final word. This was the summer that we grappled with the tension between those facts and her developing sense of autonomy (and, at times, entitlement).
But I admit that in those moments, it was her anger that made me uncomfortable — the way she would scream at me in public when she lost her temper, or the way she would dissolve into hot, furious tears. She wasn’t “behaving.” She needed to “pull herself together.” I was embarrassed by her emotional public displays. I just wanted her to stop and … be more polite.
Of course, Lucy needs to learn how to express her anger more appropriately and to respect me and my decisions, and since she is just 5 years old, I have faith she will. But watching the testimony unfold at Swift’s trial this week, I have to ask myself: How do I teach Lucy to express her anger and to protect herself when she needs to without worrying what the world thinks of her for it?
I have spent much of my life trying to follow rules and be liked, to not ruffle feathers or make waves unless they were “good” waves. When I have stood up for myself or asked for what I wanted, I have often been regarded as “rude” or “difficult” or worse. It’s taken all my 43 years to get to a point where I don’t care (as much).
Taylor Swift was just 23 years old when the alleged groping occurred. At her age, I would have finished the meet-and-greet too, just grateful the people were there to see me, afraid to let them down, stunned and upset and too taken off-guard to react immediately to what had happened. I would have put everyone else’s needs before mine to be polite.
One of the greatest gifts I have given my own little girl are her three older brothers. No, they aren’t going to protect her and run away her suitors, the way everyone predicts when they hear she is the only girl; Lucy can take care of herself just fine. However, she has been able to grow up watching her brothers move through the world without expectations to please everyone. They ask for what they want, unabashedly. Their clips have all been moved from green to yellow at some point.
Lucy’s first day of kindergarten went smashingly well except for the running she had to do in P.E. (“It was just too hot!” she proclaimed.) I was happy for her, but there was a part of me that mourned her entry into the bigger world, where her heart can be broken, her feelings can be hurt, her body can be groped without her consent. I want her to stay this confident, spunky little person who thinks she runs the world forever.
I can’t protect my daughter from everything, but I can arm her with a strong sense of self-worth that does not rely on other’s opinions and a loud voice (which, her brothers would attest, we have accomplished). I can teach her when to be polite and when to be anything but. I can tell her that it’s okay if her clip sometimes gets moved. And when she’s older, I will tell her about how Taylor Swift used her voice not only to sing Lucy’s favorite song, “Bad Blood,” but also to stand up for herself and all women when it was most important.