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    « ay papi(s) | Main | An education »

    (don't) smile: not your holla back kid

    I used to walk, ride my bike, or take the bus almost everywhere.

    Hey, give me a smile!

    That was before I had kids -- before I traded in urban life for a garden, a library with a nice children’s section, and a marginally reliable car.

    Aw, come on. You’re hurting my feelings!

    Men would often try to pry my gaze from my book or the scenes of the blurry city as I waited for my stop. Their lines were always the same: didactic, packaged in a toothy grin, with palms upturned as if to ask if I was really gonna leave ‘em hangin’. And I was. I did, every time.

    You’re being rude. Why are you being rude? All I asked for was a smile.

    My interest (or lack thereof) and my feelings were irrelevant. I was shirking what they considered my responsibility to be hospitable, entertaining, approachable, when I should’ve been thanking them for noticing me, putting on my most winsome smile and sitting, rapt, until they were finished with me. Instead, I refused their demands that I pretend to be happy to see them, flattered at their attention. The receiving end of the frequently ensuing ire is not pleasant, as anyone who’s met “let’s have a smile” with a stone-faced, simple “no” can attest. And so, when someone first let fly the above statements not at me, but at one of my children, I could feel the fight or flight response begin to bubble up.

    The smile-demander got to their accusations of rudeness before I had fully processed what was happening. My toddler was being accosted, made to feel guilty for not performing as requested, in the exact same way I’d experienced. A recognizable, affronted tone was peeking out from the previously jokey demeanor. That bridge of sub-humanity was not a place where I wanted, or expected, to meet my children, but there we were. And I realized that, to many people, children and women are primarily for show.

    “He doesn’t have to smile,” I said. “If he wanted to smile, he’d be smiling.” The smile-demander insisted that they were just playing around. Ah, I’d heard that one before.

    This isn’t the only line that’s used on kids and women. You’re just tired is bandied about a crying child just as often as it is their stressed mother, with no further delving. No questioning. Are you tired? How can I help? What’s bothering you? Of course, those are questions reserved for people we hold in higher esteem. People whose ability to reason we value, whose feelings we consider valid, not overwrought and silly.

    The systematic devaluing of women’s feelings serves to infantilize, which wouldn’t be such a bad gig if said infants didn’t have it even worse. Made out to be a burden, held to impossibly high standards, required to self soothe and obey without question often for fear of physical punishment, kids’ humanity doesn’t seem to be fully legitimized until they reach the age of majority, with several caveats for gender, race and sexual orientation. They aren't allowed to feel things we find unpleasant, act in ways that make us uncomfortable, or express emotions in ways we find unpalatable, much like their mothers, who by most of society's estimation aren't allowed to look unpolished, unwilling, or uninterested. Don't believe me? Enter a debate about leggings as pants and you'll hear fifty different ways that women owe it to the world at large to be attractive in a particular way, to put in some effort, to not embarrass themselves, to not gross out onlookers. 

    Thankfully, purposefully, I have surrounded my family with people who don’t participate in this craziness, which makes contrasts all the more stark when they happen. The odd sing-songy directive What do we say?, for example, is jarring, confusing to my children, and is met with my curt reply: “we” don’t encourage forced gratitude. I'm proud to say that I kept my wits about me when that smile demander accosted my kid. Though, as their joviality gave way to impatience, I could almost feel the stickiness of the old bus seat naugahyde against the backs of my knees, remembering the times I quickly stood to relocate as someone spat insults or insisted that I come back. I stood up for him the way I wish someone would have stood up for me, and I can rest a little easier in the knowledge that, on my watch, he won't be a smile demander, a you're-just-tired-er, a dismisser of women and children and people his culture deems dismissable.  


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      Terrific Website, Preserve the very good work. Thanks a ton!

    Reader Comments (3)

    *applause* This is really excellent. <3

    June 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoella @ Fine and Fair

    Wonderfully put! You and I and our children--we are NOT ornaments with Chatty-Kathy pull-strings in the back, set to give out pre-programmed positive responses to any jerk who comes along.

    Personally, two things I hated for my son when he was a child: Because he was always tall and always intelligent, people--his third grade teacher in particular--expected him to always be a hyperadult, never allowed to be playful or childlike.

    And I hated people touching him, again as you point out, as if he were merely an ornament. I wanted to get him a big campaign-style button to wear that said: Do Not Touch Me (I am not a Thing).

    So thank you!!

    June 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLee in Iowa

    Thanks, you guys! Lee, yes! My son is tall, too, and when he was a young toddler I caught so many adults acting like he should "know better" about whatever it was they valued. If you made those buttons, I'd invest in a couple hundred to hand out to parents!

    June 17, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterstefanie

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