The school, where I spent my foundation years, rewarded students with an annual badge for ‘good conduct’. Invariably, the quietest girl in the class, who didn’t give the teachers a cause for complaint, was honoured with the badge. Naughty kids, or those who loved speaking, or those who had opposing points of view, didn’t stand a chance. Toeing the line meant being called ‘a good girl’ by the teachers, and being teased as ‘Miss Goody two-shoes’ by the peers.
Over the years, the definition of a ‘good girl’ hasn’t changed much. Often, someone who listens passively, is agreeable, and not assertive, is considered to be a good girl. The same definition has been dictated through popular culture as well—in children’s literature through stories like Little Red Riding Hood, through our movies. Our parenting too conforms to the same idea—don’t we often say, “Be a good girl and listen”.
Manisha Panwar, an executive coach and a mother to an 18-year-old daughter, was a ‘tomboy’ while growing up. Her parents struggled to ‘tame’ her. “Even though, we were exposed to so much diversity, thanks to my father and grandfather being in the armed forces, I can recall that as girls, we were told to behave in a certain way,” she says. Besides behaviour, clothing style was also monitored. Like any teenager, she started to rebel against such norms. “But I was always told that I was the one that needed to be corrected. I lived with this falsehood for a very long time until my post-graduation,” Panwar explains.
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It might seem contrarian, but education and financial independence were given due importance in the family. Panwar, therefore, started working in her early 20s. Her first job was with a merchant shipping company, which had very few women employees. She recalls her manager saying that a woman in the human resource team would bring in a certain ‘softness’ to the organisation.
Panwar soon realised that being meek and soft was not helping her reach her goals. “I slowly trained myself to be assertive. I was called aggressive and a “pusher” at times,” she adds. Now, over the years, as an executive coach, she has learnt to use a mix of empathy and assertiveness to deliver results.
Panwar also makes sure that her daughter doesn’t grow up with the ‘good girl syndrome’ even though the society expects her to. “I tell her to be kind and helpful, but also to stand up for herself,” she adds.
Mahua Chatterjee, director, corporate marketing, at a cyber security firm in Atlanta, US, remembers being treated equally as her brother at home. However, she was chided by extended family members for being ‘opinionated’, a ‘rebel’, and for being ‘too independent’. “I am sure my parents had to pick their battles when society tried to tell them how to raise me as a ‘good girl’. But I never felt the pressure to prove anything, and took decisions that I was 100% accountable for,” she adds. As a mother to a boy and a girl, Chatterjee makes sure that her kids don’t grow up with the stereotyping that she was exposed to.
Aarti C. Rajaratnam, a psychologist and author, believes that the ‘good girl syndrome’ is not limited to a certain stratum. Education, unfortunately, doesn’t impact its prevalence. She elaborates on this, citing an example of a doctor in a city in Tamil Nadu, marrying off his daughter at a young age to maintain the societal expectations of a ‘good girl’.
“In the last 8-9 years, we are seeing children fight the ‘good girl syndrome’ with extreme rebellion, to intimidate the parents. These kids are being brought to therapy, with the expectation that we will ‘fix the problem’. These problems could be anything, ranging from the child not getting over her crush, her coming out of the closet or even choosing humanities over engineering,” she explains.
Rajaratnam also adds that mothers are now trying to break away from the societal mould of good girls that they were expected to be, by living vicariously through their daughters. “Mothers are fighting with the entire family structure for their daughter’s education, co-curricular activities and even late marriage,” she says.
The parent’s role in helping a girl transition through this phase is important, the psychologist explains. “We need to model the change by letting our kids know that conflict is not wrong and it’s a sign of a healthy relationship. We need to let them know that having a different point of view is fine. We need to treat them as equals. Control and discipline, as was believed earlier, do not work. Connection and affection do,” Rajaratnam says.
Perhaps, it is time we understood that ‘no’ is not a bad word after all. Perhaps, a ‘good girl’ can be more than we imagine her to be.
Barkha Shah is a Bengaluru-based writer and digital marketing strategist