On girls and other thoughts around building resilience

Yesterday my daughter came home from school in tears. She had been disciplined for hitting someone. I found this very strange as it was unlike my daughter to throw the first punch, so I met with her teacher to discuss it in more detail. I later found out that she was standing in line when the boy in front of her pushed her. There were no teachers present to tell, so she instinctively pushed back.

I have always been one to adhere to rules, and I have a great deal of respect for teachers and value their role. However, as much as I wanted to explain to my daughter that violence is not the way and that her being disciplined was fair, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by a great sense of female duty. One that overpowered my ability to support what the teacher was saying. This wasn’t about the child who hit my child. In fact, all children fight, it’s absolutely natural and normal. Instead, events that have taken place against women and girls recently flashed by my eyes, almost like a test. I felt myself being transported ten years down the line where perhaps, god forbid, my daughter might have to face the same difficult decisions, and wondering if she’d just stand there, helpless, not knowing what to do, because she’d been programmed to not fight back.

I consoled her.

And then I said the only thing I could possibly think of saying.

‘Well done, girl. Well done for sticking up for yourself’.

I felt a great sense of pride.

Despite the fact that my daughter now has a glaring mark on her record, that will probably stay there for the rest of the year, I explained to her that discipline is there to remind us that the method we choose to retaliate shouldn’t include violence. But I also felt duty bound to explain to her that under no circumstances should she take a punch, a hit, a push, or a shove lying down.

As parents we aren’t given any training, we’re not given a handbook, or a set of rules to guide us. Each day is different, and every single method we use is individual to the children we have. No one size fits all. What works for one family might not work for another, which is why contextual parenting is so important. There is no right way, and there is no wrong way.

We’ve seen it happen all too much. We tell girls to be brave, to stand up for themselves. We tell them that they must build their resilience and confidence. But how will they ever learn to do this when they aren’t taught how to build confidence and resilience? How will they learn these qualities when opportunities to develop these skills are met with discipline, that tells them that they’ve done something wrong? How will they learn when they are expected to ‘tell someone’ instead of fighting back? Of course I am in no way condoning violence, but what if no one is there to tell? Or what if she does tell someone and is branded the ‘tell-tale’?

Recent reports about the growing epidemic of sexual violence in schools instils me with little confidence. Of course, I know that schools are trying their best, and for what it’s worth we are lucky that our school has always taken our concerns very seriously, no matter how small they may seem. But I do wonder how effective draconian disciplinary measures are and whether they consider the long term impact it has on a young girl’s mind and her ability to build resilience and the ability to say ‘no, this is not okay – I will not allow you to do this to me’.

By the time we get to the world of work, us women are expected to be fully fledged leaders, we should know it all, we should be able to stand up to our male counterparts as equals. But this is never the case. For years I witnessed male dominance in meetings and boardrooms; I saw how a woman would give an idea and it would be dismissed, yet when the same idea was rebranded by a male colleague it would immediately be accepted. I saw how confident female managers and team leaders would wilt in front of their male seniors. No one trained me for this. No one told me this would happen. We somehow grew, in our gender specific roles, and we were stuck in them.

It took me years to be able to stand up to my male counterparts and demand equality. In fact, one of my very good friends says that ‘equality is not about treating everyone the same’. I totally agree with this. Until we start to accept that there is a distinct difference between girls and boys, women and men, and their understanding of the world, their fears and their joys, we will never achieve true progress in society. We need to start accepting the difference and the qualities that we all have to offer. We need to move beyond merely celebrating International Women’s Day and sending one another memes about female empowerment. We need to start doing – acting – role modelling. But more importantly it’s time for us to change the way we teach our girls how to be girls.

We need to think of new and innovative methods to help our girls understand that there is no one way to behave. We should be encouraging the individuality of our girls. Allowing them to blossom as a rose amongst thorns, standing tall on their valuable experiences. We should not be clipping their wings before they have matured.

I know I’m not alone on this issue. In fact I’ve been quite surprised and reassured by the messages of support on this topic. For me, it’s not about an incident, it’s about a policy that we subconsciously end up supporting, which has a greater long term impact on future generations. I hope that this blog post has given a different perspective on this issue. For me, I always thought I knew how I’d react if ever faced with this dilemma, but the truth is, you never know how you’re going to react until you’re in it. No matter how many conversations you have, no matter how many books you read or courses you attend, sometimes, as a parent, you just have to go with your gut.

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