Almost every day when I pick her up from after-school care, my daughter pleads, “Mommy? Can we play on the playground?”
Usually, I’m forced to say no, because I know my daughter well. School nights are filled with responsibilities, and she’s usually tired enough that any extra exertion will lead to an evening full of breakdowns.
Tonight, before she asked, I said, “Would you play on the playground with me?”
(I would like extra cool points for this, please, because it was at least one million degrees outside, and I was in full business casual dress with black pants and black dress socks and all that jazz. Also, I am lazy. Also, I was tired enough that any extra exertion on my part had the potential to lead to an evening full of breakdowns. On my part.)
Tory enthusiastically showed me all the things that, now that she was in first grade, she could do without my help. She scaled the climby things quickly and confidently without so much as a whimper, wince or shudder (on either of our parts, I’m proud to say). We raced around the red, yellow and blue playground equipment, and she *somehow* managed to beat me down the slide by mere inches every single time. *Somehow.*
After ten minutes or so, a rattly old truck pulled up, and out popped a — well, I wasn’t sure, if I’m honest. It was an adorable baby face and a very long blond ponytail. I don’t like to make assumptions about gender because my daughter’s very short haircut has earned her lots of “what a cute little boy!”s (which bother me more than her, so far).
“Hi!” I said. “This is Tory. What’s your name?”
“Hi Malachi! Would you like to play with us?”
“Yeah! RACE YOU!!”
Tory and Malachi raced around the playground, climbing and jumping and sliding…
…until Malachi’s dad apparently noticed my daughter’s skirt.
“Malachi, that’s a girl. So you play nice now.”
I rolled my eyes and the kids kept playing, completely without incident or any boy-on-girl carelessness.
“Malachi, I mean it. That’s a girl. Play nice and be careful.”
And that’s when things turned. Within a few minutes, Tory called to me from the middle of one of the climby things she’d scaled fearlessly just a few minutes before. “Mom! I’m scared! Help me down!”
This continued the rest of the time we were at the playground. She stuck to the stairs and the slides, refusing to climb or jump. When I suggested she keep playing with Malachi, she buried her face in my shirt instead. My first grader went from wonder woman to timid mouse with a single parental prescription.
Be careful with your words. When you tell your son to “play nice because that’s a girl,” you’re telling him it’s okay to not to play nice with boys. You’re telling him boys and girls are separate and get separate sets of rules. You’re telling him he has power over girls because he’s a boy. You’re telling him girls are fragile and weak and need to be coddled.
And you’re telling my daughter the same things.