A few years ago, I was walking near my apartment with my daughters, then 7 and 4, when an older man I recognized from the neighborhood began to talk to them. He wasn’t in any apparent way a threat, but he wasn’t a friend, either. Both of my girls are by nature slow to warm up and have a healthy dose of stranger danger.
“Cat got your tongue?” he said after they didn’t respond to him. I’ve taught my girls to be polite enough to stop and make eye contact, but that was as much as they’d give him. Instead, it was me, their mother, who smiled and explained that they were shy, to which he responded, “You don’t want to say hello?”
“I’ve taught them they don’t have to talk to strangers,” I said.
He said, “I’m a nice old man, I promise,” and made a comment about what “beauties” they were.
It was that familiar pressure to yield to a stranger’s need for a smile or my attention that set me off.
“Well, you’re still a stranger; it doesn’t matter if you’re nice,” I said, and I took their hands and we walked on.
For the remaining two blocks to our apartment, I told my daughters that they did exactly the right thing, that they never had to talk to someone they didn’t know, especially when that person is talking about the way they look. A conversation required them to use their voice, which is part of their body, and their bodies are theirs alone.
I was angry at myself for apologizing for them, for modeling bad habits when, by standing silent, they clearly already knew what to do. I decided that I would teach them to be rude. I would no longer teach them that they owe anyone smiles or gratitude for being noticed. I would no longer train them to weaken their boundaries for the sake of being polite.
I was also angry at myself for calling them shy when it doesn’t matter whether they are or not, for making an excuse to placate a man who felt entitled to their time and attention. How was this different from dropping the word husband when a man talks to me at a bar?
Raising children in New York City means a very particular set of parenting goals. I want my girls to be able to navigate a subway stairway or sidewalk without taking up more space than necessary. I don’t want to hear complaints about walks that are fewer than 50 city blocks. But I also want them to know that no stranger is entitled to an explanation of who they are.
When someone says how pretty my girls are, I could add, “They’re also both mathematically and artistically gifted,” or “This one knows all the state capitals,” or “That one has impeccable comic timing.” But these encounters aren’t about their self-esteem or their worth, and I don’t want to teach them that they must prove their value. I also won’t say, “Comments about girls’ appearances are sexist,” since it’s not their job, or mine, to teach people to examine their biases. If their lives are like most women’s, there will be plenty of emotional lifting for others down the road.
It’s all but certain that in the next decade someone will demand from them a smile, an answer, an expression of gratitude, and they’ll see how quickly an unacknowledged compliment can lead to a threat. I want to teach my daughters that they are entitled to silence. But I also want to teach them that sometimes it’s okay to snarl back. One day I will tell them about how I responded as a teenager: flipped off men, pushed my knees back against those subway manspreaders. I want my girls to feel as entitled to their space and their body as those who demand their attention do.
For now, though, I can stand between them and whomever and change the subject. I can tell people to stop talking to my children. I can stop smiling when I do this. I can get angry on their behalf.
I’m sure that we come off as rude. But I want to teach my girls that sometimes it’s better to be impolite. That they matter. To not live in fear, even as I know that fear is inevitable, that one day they will be catcalled or followed or touched in ways that they never asked for or signaled for, that no matter what I teach them, it is sure to happen as it happens to every single woman just for existing in public. Whatever I teach them, no matter how much practice they get in claiming their own space, they will learn on their own that sometimes what’s luckiest of all is to be ignored.
I still see this man, this man who had assessed his own harmlessness without understanding the cycle of harm he was perpetuating, who thought it was his right to have a conversation with little girls because he appreciated the way they looked. My neighborhood is small and friendly, but I no longer make eye contact with him, and I certainly don’t smile. I speed my fleet-foot daughters past him, and I don’t feel bad about it at all.
Danielle Lazarin’s debut collection of short stories, Back Talk (Penguin), will be released on February 6.