My daughter just turned three last week. She is the three-est three year old there ever was. If I ask her not to yell in her brother’s face, her next move is to position her mouth millimeters away from his, so close he’d be able to interpret her words from the vibrations of her jaw moving, like a damn pit viper, and yell so violently chocolate-muffin flaked spittle bathes his chubby face, pooling in his [adorable] chin rolls. Everything I ask of her is met with a contrarian “why?” or a “but [insert inanely nonsensical excuse here]”. Cue me explaining to her for the millionth time why she has to brush her teeth right this second and gnawing the inside of my cheek as if it had the same effect as massacring a stress ball…and the insidious, knee-jerk impulse to spit out that tried-and-true, end-of-my-rope parenting mantra: “Because I said so!” And, TBH? I do. More often than I’d like to admit.
But here’s the thing.
When I don’t? When I keep asking for what I want, and she keeps being defiant? Friends, family, other parents I respect give me the side-eye, comment about how I’m raising a snowflake, tell me I’m the mom and I can make her listen and she should just say “yes ma’am” and do what I say- no discussion, no reasoning with her, just force of will and power on my end crushing resistance on hers. And I think that says something about how we view children, and classes of subjugated people who don’t traditionally hold the majority of power in general. Brute force, often to extreme and unacceptable degrees, is employed to elicit compliance, and, while on a much lower-stakes scale, that is what the “Because I said so” model of parenting models for our kids: your cheerful obedience to authority is a necessary component of you being treated as a human being.
Respectability politics is defined [by Wikipedia, because this is a mom blog, not a research paper] as “attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous and compatible with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for what they see as its failure to accept difference”. Why should I hold my children to a standard of constant, unquestioning submission when I myself would chafe, struggle against such an expectation [see also: my feminist rage]? Simply because I am an authority figure, should my daughter learn that in order to not be utterly dismissed, condescended, or punished she has to acquiesce to every demand of mine, without understanding why, without consenting, without discussion? She’s trying to learn to navigate the world and understand how she relates to it, and snapping “Because I said so” when I want to assert dominion over and control her seems totally antithetical to her developing into the kind of person I want her to be.
But also? No amount of “Yes, sir”s or restrained, compliant behavior could save the people of color who have been the targets of police brutality. Being respectful to authority, being deemed a respectable member of society is not, should not be the price one has to pay to not be murdered. Being allowed to continue living, not being slaughtered in your own backyard, is not a favor being done in response to a positive, or even neutral police encounter. How has it become so normalized that when a black man is shot by police, the internet hivemind screeches, “If he’d been taught respect…if he’d not copped an attitude…if he’d been a respectable person…none of this would have happened”? Disrespect is not justification for violence; we preach to our children all the time that people come from all backgrounds and all walks of life and to try to meet minor unpleasantness with kindness and empathy, but when an adult (or adolescent, or preteen!) person of color exhibits less than perfect manners, dares to question an authority figure, does not immediately and unquestioningly comply with whatever demand is made, no matter how nonsensical it is [if you’re ordered to get on the ground, facedown, in your own neighborhood, in broad daylight, after having done nothing wrong, wouldn’t you have some questions first?], we point cheerfully to that “wrong” and cheer, “See? See?”, as if the response is justified by this perceived lack of “respectability”.
I don’t want my kids to grow up with the mindset that blind compliance with authority is desirable, especially when those authorities may espouse or enable systemic oppression and violence. That subtle conditioning that “I said so” parenting sets into motion later reinforces beliefs about what kinds of behaviors merit respect and humanity. She has to use her privilege as someone who is de facto seen to be “respectable” because she is middle class and white to needle those power structures, because she will be given far more leeway to dissent, to protest, to question than would a person of color.
So? I’ve stood on my soapbox, and yet I’m sure there is a mom reading this, all sorts of neurotransmitters bathing her brain in those feelings of superiority as a defense mechanism to a seeming attack on her parenting style as she thinks, “I bet your kid is a nightmare”. Um, yeah? And also, yours is, too. They all are. They’re kids. But I’m hoping my nightmare grows up to be a good person- not just an obedient one.