I had just started a fifth grade class when a student began waving her hand and doing that “Oooh! Oooh! Oooh!” thing that I used to do when I couldn’t contain myself.*
“Okay,” she said, “what if, like, my friend asks me if I like the dress she was buying and I didn’t like it and I wanted to tell her but I was afraid she would get mad at me?”
This is the dreaded teaching moment when I want to stand up like a lounge performer, wave fondly and shout, “Thank you so much! Good night!”
But I had a whole class left to teach, and I had to deal with it. This is a question that can break your heart. It’s the moment when a girl announces her awareness of Good Girl pressure – the rules that tell girls they must be unfailingly nice to others at all costs, even at the expense of their own integrity.
This girl was perched at the crossroads of girlhood and womanhood – the girl in her wants to tell the truth, and the young woman knows that if she does, she might damage her friendship.
The question also brings to mind one of the most common questions parents asked me on my recent national tour for The Curse of the Good Girl:
“So you want me to raise my daughter to speak her mind? If I do that, what’s going to happen to her? I mean, we’re still living on a planet where assertive women get called names.”
True story. So check out what I did in this class and let’s talk about how you deal with this. Facing those ten year olds, I didn’t try and pretend Good Girl rules don’t exist. I admitted that it was a hard question, and that I, too, often didn’t know what to say. Here’s what I did next:
Do the Cha Cha
First, I put the question in the girls’ hands and asked them to think through their choices. I call this doing the “Cha Cha” – an exercise where girls think about different choices and the possible outcomes of their choices. It works like this: If you make this Choice, what might Happen?
The first choice is telling the truth and saying, “I don’t really like the dress.” What might happen? The girls thought the friend might have gotten upset.
The second choice is saying, “I think it’s great!” What might happen then? “Then I’d be lying,” one girl chirped. Nods all around.
I leveled with them about the Good Girl rules.
“Sometimes, when a girl asks how she looks, and tells you that she wants you to be honest with her, she might be scared to hear the truth. She might be feeling insecure or worried about her looks. Because she’s feeling freaked out, being honest might end up hurting her feelings. Sometimes, a friend wants to be reassured just as much as she wants to hear the truth.
“For example,” I continued, “have you ever heard someone ask, “Do I look fat?’ What have you heard other women and girls say?” Note that I wasn’t asking girls what they say – just what they’ve heard. “Even if someone does look overweight, it’s a good idea to ask yourself if they really want to know the truth, or if they are feeling worried, afraid, or insecure.”
“Sometimes, the truth hurts. Honesty can hurt. If we don’t want someone to be hurt, we might feel like we have to lie. But then we’re not being true to ourselves. Is it possible that there is a way to answer the question where we don’t lie but we try not to hurt a friend’s feelings?”
Then we talked about different ways to answer the question without selling yourself out or launching a dressing room meltdown.
“If you like it, that’s what’s most important,” one girl suggested.
“I think it’s great for you,” another offered.
“You seem to really love it and that’s what counts.”
“It’s not my favorite, but it looks great on you.”
How do you know who you can be honest with, even if she says it’s okay to tell the truth? There isn’t a clear path to navigate Good Girl pressure; the answers often depend on the context. My approach is twofold: be straight with girls about what they’re facing but put them in charge of finding solutions. There is little to be gained by me — or anyone — telling them what to do and how to do it.
* This would be the behavior that consistently earned me a minus sign next to the report card line item that said, “Shows Growth in Self-Control.” I so would have failed the marshmallow test.