We talk about the importance of teaching girls that it’s okay to say “no”.
Say “no” to peer pressure, “no” to unwanted sexual advances, “no” to people who want to dominate, objectify or exploit them. I even tell my daughter to say “no” to family and friends who demand she kisses them when she doesn’t want to.
But what about teaching girls to say “yes”?
Last week, I realised that I needed to explicitly tell my six-year-old daughter that it’s okay to say “yes” after watching her refuse some money from our neighbour.
My neighbour offered my daughter coins for her moneybox. She knows that my daughter is saving up to buy a special book and her offer of money was done in my presence and was nothing but generous.
But rather than accepting the money, my daughter said, “Oh, it’s okay.”
Afterwards I asked my daughter if she had actually wanted the coins. Of course she did. There’s no reason why she wouldn’t have wanted them.
When I asked why she didn’t take the money she shrugged and said she didn’t know.
But I know. She learned it from me.
When anybody offers me anything — no matter how big, small, necessary or frivolous — my first response is to decline.
Every. Single. Time.
“Do you want a cup of tea?,” Oh no. Well okay, but only if you’re having one.
“Do you want me to pick up your daughter from school because it’s raining and your baby is sick?” Oh, no, it’s okay. I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you.
“Would you like another piece of cake?” Oh no. Save it for someone else.
Women are taught from an early age not to be greedy, selfish, to impose on or inconvenience anyone. To be a taker rather than a giver is just so unladylike.
Money and food are particular areas where girls and women are rewarded for not saying “yes”. My grandmother used to take pride in how few resources she consumed, proudly announcing at every meal how she was “only a little eater”.
In my very first salary negotiation I turned down a pay rise because I didn’t want to appear entitled or ungrateful. I said exactly the same thing as my daughter said to our neighbour. “Oh, it’s okay”, before adding words that a man would almost never utter, “I’m just here for the experience.”
I see mothers who desperately need help turn down offers of assistance from well meaning friends all the time.
I’ve even read it in parenting books and too many mothering blogs to count. “Say yes to offers of help. If family or friends want to take the baby for a walk so you can have a nap, say yes! If someone offers to bring you a meal they’ve prepared, say yes!”
Our unwillingness to accept offers of help, gifts, compliments, acknowledgement, or pretty much anything really, isn’t just some quirky female social ritual. It can have serious consequences to our financial security and to our quality of life. It can mean the difference between drowning or being pulled ashore.
We’re so caught up in our attempts to avoid taking resources and time and space that we don’t realise that many people actually want to help.
Of course there are also situations where people offer help out of a sense of obligation, or to fill an awkward silence. But usually you can detect the insincerity, and even if you can’t, then that’s their problem.
In general, accepting assistance is a compliment to the giver. It says that we trust and value them. Accepting help is so flattering that it’s even taught in business and politics as a way to engage people and win their support.
Our inability to accept what we’re offered isn’t just about our fear of being considered rude. It’s also a public declaration of our unimportance. It’s a statement to the world that “I’m not worth you spending time on. You must have something better to do with your time/food/small change, than give it to me.”
There will be enough people in my daughter’s life who will imply she is less important, simply because of her gender. I don’t want her to reinforce this belief, and miss out on even more opportunities, by developing an aversion to saying “yes”.
I told my daughter that rudeness is about being inconsiderate or deliberately hurtful. It’s not rude to prioritise her own needs and wants.
If she is offered something that she wants, then all she has to do is look the person in the eyes and “Yes, please.”
Yesterday we saw our neighbour who again asked my daughter if she’d like some money for her moneybox.
This time my daughter walked away beaming with a fist full of 5c and 10c coins, and, hopefully, a sense of self-worth.