My friend Kiri Blakeley relayed a hilarious anecdote over at The Stir about calling the 2-year-old daughter of an acquaintance a “good girl,” only to be told, “We don’t use the term ‘good girl.'” In the title of her post, Kiri asks, “When Did Saying “Good Girl” Become So Bad?” The answer might be three years ago, when Rachel Simmons’s book The Curse of the Good Girl was published. Simmons writes, “The Curse of the Good Girl erodes girls’ ability to know, say, and manage a complete range of feelings. It urges girls to be perfect, giving them a troubled relationship to integrity and failure. It expects girls to be selfless, limiting the expression of their needs.”
I understand and value Simmons’s point of view on this issue, and I think her criticism of the way we expect women to behave is important. That being said, I don’t think occasionally reinforcing good behavior by saying “good girl” or “good boy” is going to destroy a child’s innate sense of self. And I feel confident saying that, because thanks to the ubiquity of Simmons’s ideology, I think about this every single time the phrase slips out of my mouth. I’m gonna venture to say a neurotic mother who’s constantly worried about using the wrong type of praise is going to do more damage to a child than the actual (if flawed) praise.
And I understand that we want to teach children their essence is different from their actions, or that the whole of their identity shouldn’t be defined by a single action, but I mean, let’s talk turkey here: a person who does good things all the time is a good person. A person who does bad things all the time is a bad person. At some point, our behavior does start to define us, so what’s wrong with reinforcing good behavior by calling it such? We don’t want to teach children who make one mistake that they are bad, but this conversation isn’t about the phrase “bad girl” or “bad boy.” What seems to have struck a nerve with us culturally is the oxymoronic idea that being good can be bad.
Because to some extent this is a game of semantics – though on the other hand words do matter – I’ll make this distinction: saying “be a good girl” might not be the greatest thing you can tell a female child, because it does connote some expectation of perfection. I get that. But when a female child is well-behaved, what do we say to them? As Kiri so brilliantly put it:
(The baby) was doing something cute with her large red bib, when I cooed, “Aren’t you a good girl?”…. It wasn’t one of those things that you could classify as obvious not to say around a child. Such as, say, “muhthaf**king crackwho*re.”…. Had I just unwittingly committed her to years of therapy? Should I have avoided any value judgment and stuck with the facts, saying something like, “Aww, you are a female child playing with her bib.”
Exactly. In that situation, what can you say? “You’re so cute” implies that women and girls are supposed to be cute and that their looks and sweet behavior matter above all else. But I might call a boy baby cute as well. Is that a problem? Don’t men feel some pressure as well to be good-looking, handsome, virile? Cute? How often do grown women refer to grown men as cute? Often enough. So what’s the problem? The problem is not with the phrase “good girl” or “good boy,” it’s with not ALSO reinforcing girls when they are strong, when they are angry, when they are upset. Maybe we should worry less about saying “good girl” when a child is good and worry more about saying “good girl” at other times as well, like when a girl stands up for herself against a bully, or when she does a kickass job on the athletic field, or when she aces a test, or when she decides to shave all her hair off and look like a boy or any time she is being authentic to herself and not hurting anybody else.
And the same goes for boys, by the way. That we should say “good boy” when a boy gives a hug, lets out his frustration by crying, expresses himself using words instead of physicality. There’s nothing wrong with being good. Only everything right. And there’s nothing wrong with failing and being imperfect, either, which can also be very, very good.
What do you think? Is saying “good girl” the worst thing in the world? If you don’t say it, how do you replace it? And if we’re encouraging girls to be more than sugar and spice, what are we doing for boys to help them embrace their feminine sides?