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As a young girl, I always had an easier time talking to
boys. Maybe it was because my best friend was my brother. Maybe it was because,
for so long, I idolized my dad. Or maybe it was because I resented being a
girl. I hated long hair. I hated dresses. I spent a lot of my formative childhood years in shorts and a T-shirt, hiding up in a tree.
I'm sure the reasons are a
complicated mix of nature and nurture. I if I pull one thread, they all come
with me. But I never knew it was a problem, not really, not until I was in
third grade and I overheard a woman at a church potluck say, "Look at her
talking to the boys, she's such a flirt."
I looked around to see who she was talking about. The only
girl talking to the boys was me. My face flushed and I ran into the bathroom. The
way she said it, with a sneer in her voice, made me feel naked and cold. I was
ashamed, but I didn't really know why. "A flirt" wasn't a good thing. I
It wasn't long after that when I began to learn a flirt is
a girl who only likes boys. A flirt is a girl that other girls don't like.
Other parents don't like. A flirt is a girl who teases men. How, exactly? I
wasn't sure. But apparently just talking to them made me one.
23 years later, I was sitting
outside at a park, watching my children play. So happy to air them out after a
long cold winter indoors and I heard a mother say, "Look at that girl talking
to the boys, she's such a flirt."
Calling a girl a "flirt" implies that she is sexually provocative, that she's walking a line and giving men the wrong impression and then pulling away. If something happens, she gets what she deserves.
I looked up and saw the girl she was talking about was mine, my
daughter, who was running, laughing and playing with her friends, who happened
to be boys. They are all in preschool now. Gender is a fluid concept for them.
Boys still wear headbands and express admiration for my daughter's twirly
dresses. My daughter asks for dinosaur shirts and calls herself a Princess
Policeman. The constructs of identity are a mosaic they are just learning to assemble. They try on identities and attitudes, seeing which ones fit.
They are kids.
I turned and glared at the mother, which in the Midwest is a
really aggressive action. The woman rolled her eyes at me and left her bench,
moving closer to her friends.
It makes me upset that we are still here, that even 23 years later, a cool
springtime playground in the Midwest is still so similar to a hot, summer
potluck at a Baptist church in Texas.
Of course the boys are not called flirts for talking back to
her. Not that it would be good to call them that either. Flirting does serve a
purpose both in our culture and in nature. Even animals flirt. But using the
word "flirt" imposes an adult lens on child play and implicitly furthers patriarchal
standards for consent and sexual activity. Calling a girl a "flirt" implies
that she is sexually provocative, that she's walking a line and giving men the
wrong impression and then pulling away. If something happens, she gets what she
deserves. And it belongs nowhere near children.
The biggest pitfall of parents is fitting children into the
categories of our adult world. A few weeks ago, I saw a mom stop a boy and a
girl from playing "wrestle" together, because as she told me later, "it just
looked wrong." They were 3. When we do this to children, ushering them out of
their little worlds and force them into ours, we're not helping them. Instead we give
them shame, a shame they can't fully navigate because they can't comprehend boundaries that make no sense.