The problem with raising "good girls"

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Every time I praise my daughter for being a ‘good girl’, I cringe inside. It falls out of my mouth without thinking, as if it’s the highest praise that can be bestowed upon a girl.

But it’s not. It’s a curse and it has the potential to follow her throughout her life.

Good girls live by the unwritten expectation that they must be compliant and self-sacrificing to be of value — especially if they’re not hot enough to provide the world with eye candy. 

Good girls grow up believing that their needs, feelings and goals are secondary to those of others. They’re compliant, modest, non-confrontational, people-pleasing perfectionists.

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All too often they grow into good wives who carry the burden of domestic work without complaint, good employees who don’t speak up in meetings for fear of offending that loudmouth guy from sales, and good mothers who can’t attend to their own needs without feelings of guilt and self-recrimination.

The curse of the Good Girl is a standard of behaviour that is only applied to women.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for empathy, generosity and kindness. But being a Good Girl isn’t about basic human decency.

It’s about inauthenticity and inequality. It’s about forcing girls and women into a mold of sweetness and light where they must repress their needs and bite their tongues in order to be perpetually ‘nice’.

Round about now the apologists for the Good Girl Curse are saying that it’s all individual choice: if serving others makes you feel good, then you should do it. ‘Don’t listen to those nasty men-hating feminist-types’, they’ll say. ‘They just want to turn all women into loud-mouthed bitches who use #destroythejoint in their tweets.’

But how much of a choice is it when the Good Girl Curse is reinforced from every aspect of our culture? Take, for example the seemingly harmless kids book, The Very Cranky Bear by Australian author Nick Bland.

It’s a story of four animal friends who try to cheer up a grumpy bear. When all else fails, the sheep — a girl who is described several times in the story as being ‘plain’ — shaves off some of her wool to make a pillow so the bear can have a comfortable sleep.

The story concludes with everybody being happy — the bear because it can sleep and the four friends who no longer have to deal with the bear’s bad temper.

The Very Cranky Bear is a kind of manual for becoming a Good Girl. Not only is the male bear allowed to be angry, his anger is also indulged and appeased. And it’s a girl — in the form of the sheep — who gives up a part of herself to make the bear happy and is rewarded for her sacrifice by becoming the hero of the story.

On first reading it comes across as a charming children’s book because the good girl has become so natural in our culture that we barely notice it.

This is exactly how the curse of the Good Girl is perpetuated. Just like the sheep, girls — and women — are praised for their selflessness, which in turn reinforces their compliance.

Girls who fail to comply are routinely labeled bitches, sluts, selfish, rude, loud, boastful, and unfeminine.

But the price of compliance with the Good Girl code may be even higher than the social rejection from noncompliance.

As author Kate Figes notes in the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘girls are still socialised to be good and enabling of others, rather than competitive and capable of achieving their own dreams.’

Figes continues: ‘The distress of young girls is clearly visible in the rising rates of mental health problems, binge drinking, eating disorders and the rampant growth of bullying in our schools.’

As author and co-founder of the Girls Leadership Institute Rachel Simmons says, we need to exorcise the ‘Good Girl’ curse and its opposite — ‘Bad Girls’ — along with it and allow our girls to be ‘Real Girls’. Girls need to be encouraged to value their own needs and feelings and unlearn the belief that it is their role in life to make sure everybody else is happy.

‘Plain’ sheep do not have to give up the wool off their own backs to be valued and angry bears can sort their own sh*t out. 

 

Kasey Edwards is the best-selling author of 4 books 30-Something and Over It, 30-Something and The Clock is Ticking, OMG! That's Not My Husband, and OMG! That's Not My Child. www.kaseyedwards.com

 

120 comments

  • So if it had been a boy sheep that gave up his wool it would have been ok? Just like if a man gives a lady his jacket because she’s cold, he’s chivalrous, but if a girl gives up something for the comfort of someone else, we’re weak posh-overs who were raised to be people pleasers??? My parents told me I was a ‘good girl’ when I was growing up, and I’m fairly certain I didn’t grow up believing that my needs, feelings and goals are secondary to those of others, I think there is a lot more to how the child was raised to cause this type of thinking than just being called a ‘good girl’, is it ok to tell boys they are ‘good boys’ or is that how adult man jerks are made because they grow up believing everything they do is good???

    Commenter
    Cam
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    January 23, 2013, 7:20AM
    • What the article is trying to say is that if we praise girls for certain actions then we are limiting their potential. It’s not a bad thing if a woman turns out to be caring and free giving of wool, but she should feel free to aggressively trade her wool on the wool-exchange market too if she were so inclined. We should praise girls for being caring AND for being daring…same for boys.

      And yeah, that is part of what makes man jerks. It’s also the fact that we praise boys for being rough and daring so they are insecure about being caring and soft. The rule of balanced praise works for both genders.

      Commenter
      Tom
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      January 23, 2013, 9:21AM
    • It's a bit of a long bow.
      If I tell my nephew that he's a good boy, I doubt that will destroy him for life.
      I think get the thrust of the article, but I don't think it's gender specific.
      Basically don't raise your child to be a pushover or people-pleaser. This is valid advice.
      Children should be raised to be assertive, to protect themselves, to be kind but strong in the face of other people's selfishness or manipulation.
      But I know plenty of men and boys who are perfectionists who don't stand up for themselves, as well as plenty of girls and women who are the same.
      But it's a good point of course that we should learn to be strong and not allow others to walk all over us.

      Commenter
      Jon
      Date and time
      January 23, 2013, 9:33AM
    • Tom, I always love reading your comments, you make so much sense. :)

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      January 23, 2013, 9:36AM
    • Cam is spot on. For a complex, high trust society to work, we need to raise both boys and girls to be mindful of the needs of others, and yes: sometimes they will need to sacrifice a little of their happiness for others. The world is already full of spoiled, selfish, conceited individuals; we certainly don't need to add to them because a few people have hang ups over the phrase "good girl."

      Commenter
      James Hill
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      January 23, 2013, 9:53AM
    • @Tom and @Red Pony

      +1

      Commenter
      Miffy
      Date and time
      January 23, 2013, 10:08AM
    • Gender pedagogy is increasingly being taught in Swedish preschools. Would be good for it to be introduced here:

      http://www.sweden.se/eng/Home/Education/Preschool/Reading/Equality-at-daycare/

      Commenter
      Think
      Date and time
      January 23, 2013, 10:32AM
    • I always (several times a day) tell my 4 y/o daughter she's a good girl, and reward her for good behaviour.

      That's what I want her to grow up recognising: knowing good behaviour, and rewarding when it occurs.

      However. I'm fully aware of that type of person getting downtrodden and walked over, simply because I was as well. So when we hear of her saying about 'so and so' at kinder that hit her or said something bad, we ask 'so what did you do?' We don't mind if its 'she got a sore knee from the concrete' or 'a sore ear'.

      Dog eat dog world, she needs to learn how to survive and get what she needs, but I know she'll grow up recognising good behaviour and rewarding it with good deeds.

      She's a Good Girl

      Commenter
      Good boy
      Location
      Geelong
      Date and time
      January 23, 2013, 10:32AM
    • The premise of the article is only very briefly touched upon. There are oodles of books out there about raising girls, and in particular the curse of the 'good girl'. A good girl is widely perceived as being compliant, subservient, quiet, conformist, non-confrontational, gentle and serene. Whereas a girl who challenges, questions, is aggressive or non-conformist is categorised as a 'bad girl'. And being a 'bad girl' draws connotations of being cheap, easy (especially from a sexual perspective), troublesome and disruptive. The idea is that girls are raised with balance - yes, of course we want our children to do the right thing, have manners, be respectful of self and others. But we should also allow girls the freedom to voice opinions, ask questions, and be daring without automatically labelling them 'bad'.

      Commenter
      CJ
      Location
      The White House
      Date and time
      January 23, 2013, 12:48PM
    • Back off Red Pony, I bags Tom!

      Commenter
      Ms Patonga
      Date and time
      January 23, 2013, 1:04PM

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