A really interesting situation came up this week that had me realising how much more internal work I have to do to unpack my own experiences and expectations, particularly around gender and relationships.
It is seriously freezing here. Actually about twenty degrees below freezing. We have been hitting up a lot of indoor play spaces each week so that everyone can move their bodies. We were at one of these places yesterday and my daughter met a little boy. She said, ‘I wonder if he wants to be my friend?’ And off she ran to find out. They happily played for half an hour or so, going up and down the slides, running about the place.
He was a sweet, energetic little boy. Like a happy little puppy, bounding around, getting very close, talking excitedly and non-stop.
They played a few arcade games together and the boy went off with his mum to choose his prize. He chose a small jar of slime for himself, and one for my daughter. It was kind and considerate and he eagerly ran over to give it to her.
He proudly presented it to my daughter and she said ‘thanks.’ His mum was standing behind him smiling, no doubt admiring her son being such a thoughtful person.
Then my daughter said, in her typical four-year-old, full-volume and uninhibited way, ‘mum, I don’t want to be his friend anymore.’
I froze. I felt the weight of expectation in that moment. The boy standing there in anticipation, wanting her approval. The mother wanting his kind deed to be noticed.
And so I said ‘you sound like you need a bit of space right now.’
I was desperately hoping she would agree with this wording so that the possibility of rekindling a bit later on might hang in the air and diffuse the tension. It feels kind of gross to write that, but it is the truth.
Instead, she said, ‘no I don’t want space. I don’t want to play with him again. Ever.’
She looked up at me. I saw her confident eyes. She wanted to know that it was ok.
And it clicked for me.
I said, ‘you don’t have to spend time or play with anyone that you don’t want to. Would you like to go down the slide with me?’
And we walked away.
And it was hard.
And I spent the rest of my time there feeling a little bit bad about that.
But this was big.
My daughter doesn’t have to spend time with any person she doesn’t want to spend time with. It doesn’t matter if I, or anyone else, thinks that person is nice and treating her well. It doesn’t matter if they shower her with gifts or affection.
The little boy made the choice to give my daughter a gift. And she decided that she still didn’t want to play with him anymore. She wanted to spend time with him, and then she changed her mind. And that is ok. Even if feelings are hurt.
It isn’t ok to spare someone’s feelings at the expense of your own ongoing discomfort. It is something I am still learning.
The awkwardness and embarrassment I felt in supporting my child felt big in the moment. And that was so important for me to recognise. I realised how conditioned I am towards the idea of women keeping the peace. To preserve the feelings of others. To not ‘make a scene.’ But I swallowed all of these ingrained reactions that were bubbling to the surface, threatening to invalidate my child’s feelings in a really predictable way. Through apology. I didn’t apologise for my daughter’s behaviour to the mother because there was nothing to apologise for. I didn’t want my daughter to think that putting in place a boundary is something to be sorry about.
My daughter used the terminology she understands. When we play we are friends, when we don’t we are not friends. She didn’t want to be friends anymore. I made steps towards making that clear boundary more ambiguous by implying it might be a temporary change of heart. I was trying to make everyone comfortable, please everyone, ‘be nice.’ She responded by making sure it was very clear to everyone how she felt. This was a permanent arrangement. She wasn’t being mean or rude or unfair or any other ridiculous judgement you could put on a girl advocating for herself and being direct in placing her boundary.
If I teach my daughter that the potential hurt feelings of a little boy trying to please her are more important than her own feelings of not wanting to spend time with that person, she will carry this. And the implications of carrying the burden of people-pleasing become much bigger when you start navigating more mature relationships.
There was an important lesson for the boy, too. Just because you really want to spend time with a person and just because you give them things, doesn’t mean they will feel the same way. Rejection is tough, but learning to process it in a healthy way is such an important skill. If I had overridden my daughter’s wish to end their relationship by saying ‘that’s not very nice, you should play with him, look how kind he has been!’, the lesson for that boy would have been that his desire to be with a girl, especially if he really, really wants her attention, is more important than her desire to be left alone. What a dangerous precedent.
Respectful parenting doesn’t always feel easy. Slowly, your children help expose each layer of your own conditioning. Reflecting on and unpacking unhealthy thought patterns is hard. But, confronting and processing these emotions is vital if we are to step in the direction of breaking a cycle. When we embrace this process, there is so much opportunity. It means that the messages we send to our children, have the potential to be a much healthier version of those we have accepted for ourselves.
These small interactions between young children might seem unimportant, but each experience becomes a puzzle piece, which over time fit together to become the big picture of how a person feels about their self worth, their ability to define their relationships and the power they hold in protecting themselves through boundaries. They are important. So important.