All the Sassy Ladies
I have a confession to make. I love all my patients, the wild ones and the introspective ones, the tiny babies and the angsty teens. But I keep a special place in my heart for one group in particular: the sassy-pants toddler girls. Maybe it’s because I feel some nostalgia for the days when my own now angelic daughter was once feisty as can be. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been working on finding my own inner ferociousness lately. Whatever the reason, these opinionated mini-Madame Presidents utterly crack me up. When it comes to how their parents feel about their daughters’ personalities, they run the gamut from egging them on to wondering who will survive in the test of wills going on in their home. These toddlers can drive you to distraction with the constant boundary-testing and vying for control. They can be bossy and prone to outbursts and talking back. Their emotions easily run away with them. It can feel like you’re losing the battle on a daily basis and the only way to “win” is to bring that fierce little spirit into submission. However, if you know me at all, you can sense a big but coming on…
Beneath all the sassiness is often an incredible strength of character. The spunk that can bring us to our knees comes from their precocious sense of self, which conflicts maddingly with all of the grown ups around them who just aren’t getting in line. You see, in their little worlds, they are totally in charge and you are the ones misbehaving. You say it’s bedtime and they think, “Dream on, buddy.” You say it’s time to clean up and they think, “Right. L.O.L.” Push the issue and you have the melt-down of the century and a bewildered parent.
I vividly remember a day many years ago in which a fellow mama came upon me at daycare pickup, crying my eyes out because my own tutu-clad mini-dictator was sitting on the “naughty rug” once again. The line in the sand this time? She was required to wear shoes at school and she was having NONE OF THAT. No, sir! I looked deeply into this unsuspecting mama’s eyes and said slowly, “She. Is. Taking. Me. Down.” Her kindness in that moment led to a lasting friendship and we actually just laughed about that conversation the other day.
I’m grateful for the moment I hit a wall because it has made me a better pediatrician. I had tried every parenting technique out there, weathered every stare at the grocery store and every piece of advice from every person who just knew they could do it better. The thing is, I had given birth to a fully-formed human being with a mind of her own, not a mini-me whom I could bend to my will. Our show-downs knocked me down a few (thousand) pegs, taught me humility, and forced a level of patience on me I didn’t know I could achieve. But alas, that sassy girl is gone, replaced by a soft-spoken, self-conscious tween who is endlessly described as “The Sweetest.” She most certainly is the absolute best…but part of me will forever mourn the opinionated, bossy little toddler with the stubborn brow who stomped her little foot at us and held her ground.
The thing is, it doesn’t take long before societal pressures kick in and these young ladies lose their spunk. I have watched this process happen so often that I have a name for it: I call it the “turtle effect.” It works like this: you have a feisty girl who has become difficult to manage. Eventually parents and teachers and other caregivers work hard to bring the child in line. Society sends a clear message that young ladies are supposed to smile and be pleasant at all times. Little girls learn to push down their true feelings and emotions at all cost, which effectively silences their opinions at the same time. And thus the turtle hides in her shell, letting the world go by, shrinking away from difficult conversations and leadership opportunities. Sure, they’re easier to deal with but where did our future president of the United States go? What have we lost in this process?
Parents, if you have a sassy pants on your hands, I implore you to change your thinking. Instead of bemoaning, “I have created a monster,” I want you to do a private little happy dance. You have a mini-warrior in your midst and that child is exactly the way she needs to be and precisely what the world needs her to be. Of course you must parent her; of course she must respect authority and learn to be polite. Certainly she must learn some give and take. But it is so terribly easy to over-shoot and end up with a meek little turtle.
Allow me to leave you with the story that inspired this post. I recently did a well visit for a patient I have followed since birth who is now 4 years old. Let’s call her, “M.” Her mom is wonderful: kind and charismatic and real. At this visit, we talked about all the usual health and developmental topics and then, as I asked her if she had any questions, she hesitated just a beat before gesturing her hands up and down near her daughter, laughingly asking, “What should we be doing about…'all this.’” Ah, I thought. We have a sass-a-frass. I launched into my spiel and she expressed her relief, admitting that she had felt some pressure to pull her into line. She then gifted me with the story I am about to share with you.
Earlier that year, like school children across the globe, little “M” was preparing for school picture day at her preschool. As an outfit was selected and her hair was prepped, M asked her mom if the photographer would be a girl or a boy. Mama replied, “Well, I don’t know, honey…but why do you ask?” M replied with utter seriousness, “Because I don’t smile for boys.” Take a gander at the photo her family received back. Any guesses as to which gender her photographer was that day?
I just cannot look at that picture without laughing. Who knows why M decided on that day that she didn’t smile for boys; it’s just so hilariously arbitrary. The point is, this little girl had an opinion and, despite probably about a dozen adults at her preschool calling out, “Smile pretty, honey!” she said, “Nuh-uh, not gonna.” I respect that. I would have caved and given them a smile. Not our sassy-pants, though. Hats off, Little Warrior. Hats off.
** Story and pictures shared with the permission of M’s super awesome mama **