I had a surprising moment of parental pride this morning at the school drop-off.
Hazel, my oldest, has just started Prep. Her brain is exploding with new ideas and discoveries. She already has her first crush (on a much older boy) and is enthusiastic and fearless about trying new things at school. She comes home each afternoon excitable and bursting with stories, which often can’t distinguished between fact and fiction, but also tired and emotional. These are trying times. She’s pushing boundaries. She’s finding her place, and challenging her place all at once. She watched the Labyrinth for the first time recently, and now we hear a lot of “It’s not fair!”
In fact, I’ve been a little worried lately about the extent of this defiance. I’m told it’s normal, a consequence of beginning a structured school routine, but the strain of arguing with a five-year-old over every little thing is taking its toll and making me nervous. Have I raised an entitled brat? To her credit, her defiance is almost always about her independence; wanting to make her own choices, challenging me when I say she can’t do something, or when I tell her to do something she doesn’t want to do (like tidying her room). And while we often have to remind her about selfishness, thoughtlessness and talking back to her parents, I can proudly say that I have never had to tell her off for being unkind or violent to another living soul.
Last night at the dinner table, she told us proudly that her teacher had given her two smiley face stickers. I asked what this meant, and she explained that there is a class Smiley Board and each time a student does something good, the teacher gives them a sticker to put next to their name on the board. Yesterday, she got two.
“What’s ‘doing something good’?” I asked her.
“Oh, you know. Tidying up. Being kind. Cooperating. Being quiet.”
Standard classroom behavioural things, other words. I thought no more of it. I was glad she did something kind or cooperative to earn two stickers. I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be for tidying up.
As I was leaving the classroom after school drop off this morning, I noticed the Smiley Board and took a look at Hazel’s progress. Scanning through the list it seemed almost half the class had a lot of smiley faces, and the other half had significantly less. Looking at each name, I realised that all of the ‘good’ students were girls. In fact, it seemed that every girl except one was way out in front of every boy in the class.
Every girl except Hazel.
Hazel was positioned just one smiley face behind the best-behaved boy in the class. A little smile crept onto my own face.
Don’t get me wrong, kindness is a major parental goal of mine and I feel pretty good about having taught Hazel kindness in all the right ways. She has an abundance of empathy, and is in the habit of comforting people when they are upset. She’s great with babies and younger children. She doesn’t say cruel things, and is genuinely baffled when others do (“Why would they say that, mum?”) But cooperating, being quiet, tidying up… those things are all great things, until they’re not great things. They’re great things when both boys and girls – perhaps more pertinently, men and women – are expected to do them and when they’re not taken for granted. But unfortunately, we still live in a world where women are expected to cooperate in support and men are expected to disrupt and leader. When women are leaders by nature, their lack of unconditional cooperation is considered aggressive, when men are supportive by nature they are are classed as weak. This is a big topic, much bigger than a paragraph in a blog post. It challenges so much of what we culturally consider to be feminine and masculine behaviour. It challenges what is acceptable in women, but undesirable in men – and vice versa. In spite of the huge progress feminism has made in recent years, here is a 2016 Prep classroom split right down the middle with cooperative little girls and less cooperative little boys (and Hazel). These are behaviours they learn through watching their peers and their role models. It will take time for all the little girls in the world to see women challenging the status quo so that they will learn to do it themselves. It will take time for all the little boys in the world to see more men cooperating and supporting others so that they will learn to do that, too. Without shame.
Knowing that I am her primary role model, I walked out of the class with a little spring in my step, recalling my days raising hell and eyebrows in mandatory Religious Studies class. Unquestioned cooperation has never been my idea of a good time. And long may it be so for Hazel.
Right after she tidies her room, FFS.