“You’re a Good Girl Na?”: Why We’re Raising Our Girls Wrong


“You’re a Good Girl Na?”: Why We’re Raising Our Girls Wrong

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

Once upon a time there was a young girl who really just wanted to cut her hair short. The idea of sporting short hair got her excited, but everytime she insisted that she wanted to chop off those locks, she was told by her parents, “You are a good girl; good girls don’t have short hair.” She failed to wrap her head around what made short hair “bad”, but all she knew was, she had to be a good girl. Short hair = bad girl – she pinned this down in her memory.

She was sure that she wanted to be a good girl. She was always asked, “You are a good girl na?” When she wanted to spend some more time playing with her friends, when she wanted to watch more TV, and even when she cried out loud after falling from a chair. “Good girls don’t cry and make noise,” they would tell her.

The little girl got different versions of the same sermon… “Good kids don’t answer back, good kids are not stubborn, good kids are always nice to people, good kids listen to their parents, good kids don’t stay out late, good kids bow before their elders unconditionally…” The riders were unending. Being a good girl seemed to be the only ticket to a wondrous fairy-land. So she continued being a “good girl”… but of course she never saw this fairy-tale world.  

None of us did.

We’re living in a time when challenging the status quo is not only aspirational but is almost a prerequisite.

The first chapter of every Indian parent’s rulebook must be titled “aagyakaari bachha”. Why else would all of them insist on fitting their children into a mould which they believed is perfect? Raising a child who grows up to think like them, talk like them, eat like them, march to the tune of the same band like them, is for some indecipherable reason, their long-cherished dream. If you ever overhear two aunties at a family function judging a mischievous kid, it is most likely to end with a smug “meri beti toh meri har baat manti hai baba” critique.  

The celebration of this parental autocracy abounds in pop culture too – Amitabh Bachchan insists his word is the law in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham; every Sooraj Barjatya film preaches, “Mata pita ki aagya ka palan karna hamara dharm hai.” It’s hardly a surprise then that raising obedient robots who only do as they are told remains the ultimate aspiration for Indian parents.

But is it time to discount the value of obedience?

We’re living in a time when challenging the status quo is not only aspirational but is almost a prerequisite. We’re sending our girls to study in schools that encourage them to think for themselves, pursue great careers, raise their voice against patriarchy, and dare to dream. Can “a good girl” then, still be the benchmark for good parenting?

The whole approach may begin with a well-meaning desire to raise a well-behaved kid, taming children at a young age, defining what is good and bad for them, and not letting them question a set belief system. But this is fairly counter-intuitive.

The boy who was told to be “good” and study hard for engineering might never give himself the option of ever pursuing a career in film-making. The little girl who was taught never to question, could end up in an abusive marriage and not have the courage to speak up or argue because all through her childhood she was made to believe that good girls keep people around them happy.

If we need women to break out of this exhausting idea of selflessness, then pressuring her to “be a good girl” is exactly the sort of thing that may backfire in her adulthood. She won’t be the woman who will have the courage to smash the glass ceiling, tell her husband to #sharetheload, ask her boss to stop if he makes her uncomfortable. She will not be the woman to start the #MeToo revolution, or even be able to say #MeToo. God knows there are enough of us out there.

If history is any indicator of the fate of women, then the world needs more disobedience than obedience.

The power dynamic in a parent-child relationship in India is tilted heavily toward the former. We grow up seeing our parents as people we should be afraid of, if we step out of line or break the rules. They have not really evolved into support systems we turn to for help. The one-track obedience demand stunts any dialogue. Indian parents rarely sit down and explain to their children why too much of ice cream is a bad idea, why honesty is the best policy, and why playtime comes with a deadline. There are perfectly good reasons for doing all these things. Obedience is not one of them.

What we need is a culture that sees dissent and opinion as signs of progress, beyond the myopic view of parental disobedience. Allow your kids the opportunity and luxury of an argument; let them challenge a perspective before you diss them as “unsanskari”. Let them have a drink with you when they grow up, so you can openly keep their drinking in check, talk about relationships so they don’t fall into a bad one. Giving them the freedom to be themselves – instead of just being obedient – is probably the best thing you could do to raise a well-rounded individual.

As Lorelai Gilmore of Gilmore Girls once said, “You have so many years of screw-ups ahead of you.” And if our girls ever have to figure their way out of them, the last thing they will need is more obedience. They can do without the persistent nag of “You are good girl na?