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Stop Calling My Daughter a Flirt

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."

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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 knew that.

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.

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I hope to shield my daughter from those labels as long as I can, so she can have the freedom to be who she needs to be in any given moment.

Image via Twenty20/shortyren

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