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Raising submissive daughters: The dangerous myth of goodness

Updated October 14, 2015

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To prepare our female children to cope successfully in a disconcertingly male-dominated system is tantamount to accepting this system. —Photo by Yumna Rafi
To prepare our female children to cope successfully in a disconcertingly male-dominated system is tantamount to accepting this system. —Photo by Yumna Rafi

I have a seven-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son. My approach to these two individuals is palpably different.

My daughter, to my enormous relief, is a bit of a gem. Her qualities fill me with pride and pleasure on a more or less daily basis. She volunteers when it comes to household chores, thrives on acts of kindness, works diligently and makes reasonable requests.

For all that, family and friends bestow upon her generous praise, and I bask in the knowledge that with her, at least, I have landed on my feet.

You may have guessed that the tributes paid to my daughter above, while all grounded in veracity, are set up as a foil against my wonderful, and wonderfully different son.

My son is a source of immeasurable joy and fascination, and I often, literally, stand back in awe of him and his engagement with life. I envy his decisiveness, his ability to think dedicatedly of himself and his inclination to prioritise his needs and desires over those of others.

Admittedly, these ‘qualities’ may be interpreted as the standard definition of self-indulgence, but I genuinely admire their presence in my son. And, it has struck me, with part shock and part horror, that these personality formations of my two very different children have been, to a large extent, my own propagations.

Submissive from day one

Extolled above, in the form of praise for my daughter, lies the dangerous myth of goodness.

As a little girl who commenced the journey to ‘womanhood’ from birth, she is lumbered with, like it or not, certain expectations from day one.

We live in a household that upholds feminist ideals at every opportunity presented to us, but I have come to realise that despite those values, I have been raising my daughter to be prepared for the many adjustments, compromises, sacrifices and endurance that life may demand of her.

If I had been inculcating in her the values of hardiness and combat, my approach would perhaps be less troubling. Unwittingly however, I have been teaching her to accommodate and to fit in; to be resilient but not to fight; to have her chin up but not to stick her neck out.

What’s more perturbing is the ‘exacerbation’ of her goodness since the birth of her little brother.

As she showed signs of making adjustments around his considerably more assertive personality, my regard for her maturity and perspicacity soared.

As she gave in to his tantrums, handed over cherished toys and teddies to him under pressure and settled for the smaller portion of ice cream, I secretly (and often quite openly, too) applauded her for being the ‘bigger person’.

This process did not end when my son exited toddlerhood.

He is now the same age as she was when she made those seemingly sensible choices and noble sacrifices. Unlike his sister, however, he has the decisiveness and drive to fulfill his wants and needs in a way that, as I earlier suggested, leaves me regularly amazed.

The way I have encouraged my daughter in working around her brother’s presence, with growing elasticity, is dangerous – it is the first step towards embodying that very same compromising, settling-for-less, negotiating persona that has left women unable to gain even the semblance of equality with men world over.

Raise them fearless, not meek

If I have inadvertently encouraged the nurturing of selfish brats, I must explicitly state that this is neither my intention nor inclination. In the end, we all want to raise decent human beings.

However, I don't have any qualms professing that we raise our daughters with clearly-defined ideas about what they reasonably want, desire and are entitled to, and foster in them the determination to pursue all of the above.

If I have managed to make son decisive and resolute in his approach to life, it should not be at the expense of my daughter.

To prepare our female children to cope successfully in a disconcertingly male-dominated system is tantamount to accepting this system, to playing the existing game.

So as a mother, it becomes our obligation to ensure that our daughters are not just good, but acutely aware of what is good for them.

For this, they may be labelled feisty, gutsy, fearless and voracious. Embrace it. None of those terms have negative connotations of any sort attached to them. Trust me, I’ve checked.