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Why I’m Proud to Be The Mom of The Mean Girl: A Cultural Essay

By Chantal Panozzo


As an American woman who has always struggled with passivity and has also observed other American women with similar issues, especially in the workplace, I like the way my daughter confidently stands up for herself and I don’t want her to be sorry for it.


“Look at my house, Mommy!”

My three-year-old daughter grinned and cast her arms wide in front of a pile of big foam blocks. Then two four-year-old boys from the local day camp ran into the park district gym and knocked down her masterpiece.

“Don’t do that!” my daughter said, putting her hands on her hips. “That’s my house!” But the boys continued their destruction despite her protests.

The park district camp counselor walked over to me. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“It’s ok. Don’t apologize. Or do anything. They’re kids. They’ll work it out,” I replied.

Two minutes later, the two boys and my daughter were rebuilding the house together. Then the three of them played for the next hour, riding Bobby Cars to and from the house, as if they had always been the best of friends.

My daughter and her new friends had just remodeled their home for a third time when another child entered the gym and began the next episode in home destruction.

“Don’t knock down our house!” my daughter said. She wagged her finger at the newcomer. The two boys repeated her words and antics.

“She’s mean,” the newcomer said to her grandmother.

The grandmother stepped into what had been my daughter’s house.

“You need to be nice!” she told my daughter. “Say you’re sorry!”

Observing, I shook my head at the grandmother’s interference. Despite advice to love your kids, keep them safe, but get out of their way from parenting experts like Kathy Masarie, MD Parent and Life Coach, this helicopter parenting (or grand-parenting) happens a few times a week when we’re out and about in our Chicago suburb: my daughter stands up for herself only to be “corrected” for her assertiveness by other caretakers. Since we’ve moved back to the United States from Switzerland in October, my daughter has been called “mean” and been told to “be nice” more times than I care to count.

But as I observe her, at least through the eyes of an American mother versed in European parenting styles, I see nothing mean (can a three-year-old even be mean?) about my daughter. Is it mean to defend a house you’ve spent an eternity building—since for a toddler, ten minutes is an eternity? And should you have to say you’re sorry for being upset in front of the very person who knocked your house down?

As an American woman who has always struggled with passivity and has also observed other American women with similar issues, especially in the workplace, I like the way my daughter confidently stands up for herself and I don’t want her to be sorry for it.

In Switzerland, where my daughter was born, and where we lived until she was three, I learned to parent as she learned to play. Swiss children are taught to work things out for themselves and parents don’t interfere with play unless there is danger of someone getting hurt. Since moving “home” I’ve considered the hovering and interfering American parenting approach, but I just can’t do it.

Instead, as the other American caretakers correct and hover and instruct, I sit back with a beverage and wonder: Why can’t we let our children work things out amongst themselves? And why are we teaching our children to be sorry for their assertiveness by making them apologize to others for defending something they built and believed in—even if it’s something as simple as a foam block house?

Because here’s the thing: If we don’t allow our daughters to defend their foam block houses, then how will they learn to stand up for themselves later in life when it comes to salary increases, fair pay, and equal treatment? If we don’t allow our children to work things out for themselves as toddlers, how will they learn to work out disagreements as adults?

Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed, writes, “When children learn to resolve their own conflicts, without Mom or Dad swooping in to the rescue, they build grit, self-confidence, and the creative problem-solving skills that lead to higher achievement.”

Luckily, my daughter has no problem standing up for herself—even in front of other adults. She isn’t “nice” in the way that the grandmother wants her to be. She doesn’t apologize and for that I am grateful.

Then the camp counselor tells the boys that it’s time to go.

The grandmother looks relieved, but my daughter looks like someone knocked her house down again. She runs to the boys and hugs the bigger one.

“You’re so nice,” says the boy.

Nice? I want to hug that boy too, but since he is being escorted away I hang on to his words instead. Then I embrace my daughter, because she is everything I could want in a daughter, and also because she is crying. Her home destructors-turned-friends are now gone, but hopefully her assertive spirit never will be.

Chicago-based writer Chantal Panozzo has written about parenting, expat life, and Switzerland for the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. She is the author of Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known. Follow her on Twitter @WriterAbroad.


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