One of my favorite folksy idioms is "little pitchers have big ears." For those of you unfamiliar with the saying, it basically means "be careful what you say around children: they're always listening." (Just ask my partner, who worked for months trying to get our toddler to say "Thank you" but discovered that one "Goddamnit" had our little one swearing constantly.) But this concept goes beyond cursing: in fact, parents would do well to consider everything their child is hearing. As such, there are things you should never say to your daughters in front of your sons. Even if you don't intend for them to hear you, they will, and they will learn to internalize the meaning behind your words.
I'm grateful for the fact that a lot of writers (at least in my world, it seems) are writing more and more about something I've noticed in raising a son and a daughter: sexism hurts everyone. Make no mistake, between women and men, women and girls are the more numerous and extreme of the Patriarchy's casualties. But when it comes down to it, what sexism ultimately does is create a more narrow, restrictive, compartmentalized world for everyone, gender identity be damned. Now, for men, those restrictions are often designed to funnel them towards different versions of success (your chances are better, of course, when said men start out life wealthy, white, straight, cis, etc.) but it comes at a cost. Like women and girls, they are told their success and social acceptance is reliant upon their perpetuating very particular behaviors and beliefs, which have often been imprinted on them from the time they're born. How they actually feel, of course, is immaterial.
The following ideas and phrases are ones, I would argue, are harmful to everyone involved — the daughters who are hearing them directly, and the sons who are absorbing what you're hearing nevertheless — by perpetuating sexist ideas about how men and women behave and should interact with one another.
"Girls Don't Fart"
Yes, it's silly, but let's start light and fluffy, shall we? (See! Feminists aren't all dour and serious! We're having fun! Farts! Hahaha! Wheee!)
What better way to really drive home the idea that women literally aren't human beings than insisting they do not/should not perform basic body functions. Look, you don't have to encourage your daughter to fart on command for comedic effect (unless you're my partner, who thinks that's hilarious), but telling her she should keep her farts private because she has to maintain the illusion that female humans are these otherworldly, ethereal beings who are magically above passing gas is bad for everyone. It perpetuates a really weird (and unrealistic) standard of femininity.
"Be A Lady"
Like body functions, manners shouldn't be tied to gender. Good behavior is good behavior, no matter who is performing it. Holding a door for someone, saying please and thank you, being kind? These things know no gender. And if they're manners that require gender (wearing a dress, crossing your legs at the ankle, sticking your pinkie up when you sip tea, or whatever), I'm gonna go ahead and declare that that's not good manners, but drag: gendered performance art that overemphasizes how society feels "men" and "women" should behave. Like, officially declaring it, because I can. Because I have that power.
(Hey, if there are people out there declaring that girls don't fart I feel just fine declaring myself the official arbiter of manners.)
Discuss Elaborate Games Girls Should Play To Attract Boys' Attention
It's terrible to tell your daughter that there are narrow, prescribed actions she is allowed to take in pursuing her own interests based on gender. But perhaps even more awful (and dangerous) is giving men the impression that:
a) women don't say what they actually mean and it's up to them to take action regardless of what they're hearing;
b) that women are constantly trying to manipulate them to get what they want;
Like, I'm pretty sure that's how MRAs are created, and God knows we don't need any more of those creepers lurking about.
"You Don't Need To Eat That"/"Let Your Brother Have The Last Piece"
Very often, people don't recognize the creepy food politics going on in their own families until they see a family that has a healthy relationship with food. Additionally, so few families seem to have a healthy relationship with food that some people go their whole lives perpetuating the weirdness without ever noticing it. These politics (like, let's face it: pretty much all politics) are often gendered: a "growing boy" is praised for eating an amount of food that a girl would be concern-trolled over. So pay attention to how you talk about food with your sons and daughters and see if changing the rules based on nothing more than gender.
"He Doesn't Have To/He's Allowed Because He's A Boy"
"So, being subtle and subconscious in my gendered ideas about privilege is bad," you say. "Does that mean it would be better if I were overt in letting my kids know that my sons are exempt from certain responsibilities and my daughters are restricted from others?"
No. Just stop.
Some women attempt to bond with other women and girls over their shared disdain for men and "male behavior." This is sort of creepy, and I can only imagine it's disheartening to the point of heartbreaking for a little boy overhearing such nonsense. Now, please do not mistake: this is not a #NotAllMen criticism. Indeed, a great number of "male behaviors" make life annoying and even unbearable for a lot of people, and I think that should be complained about (loudly) with female and male children. The difference comes in with how its discussed and whether or not any sort of remedy is offered. So it's the difference between:
"Ugh! Men! They're so dumb! But what are we going to do? That's just how they are!"
"F*ck the Patriarchy, which has for too long prescribed behaviors for men and boys to promote and perpetuate their privilege that are discriminatory and harmful for everyone involved, including themselves! Come, children! Let us deconstruct some bullsh*t!"
Ummm, so you might want to, you know, work on the exact wording, but you get the idea.
"Let's Not Talk About This In Front Of Your Brother..."
The Traditionally Female World (which includes but is not limited to emotional labor, emotions in general, reproductive functions, and domesticity) is often one that exists largely outside of the public eye. That's to say, of course, that for a long, long time, men kept women segregated and sequestered as a means of control. Things are, by and large, better now, but centuries of habit die hard, so there's a lot women feel ashamed to discuss in the presence of a non-female audience.
To this I say: f*ck that noise. Boys can learn about periods or love or heartache or whatever right alongside their sisters. Who does keeping this information from them serve, exactly?
"If Any Boys Come Snooping Around Here, Your Brother/Father/Male Relative Is Going To Beat Them Up"
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Guys, it's a funny joke! It's funny because men control female bodies and sexuality, and they'll use violent means if necessary! Hahahahaha. Ha. Ha.
Wait? Why is this funny? Oh right, it's not even a little bit funny. (It's also contrived AF.) It'd just teaching girls that they're not in charge of their own choices or decisions and teaching boys that they're allowed to violently control women and girls.
"What Do You Expect? He's A Boy!"
Do I have to explain why this is awful? Like, if I do I feel like you've probably already stopped reading this list.
"Girls Are So Catty And Dramatic"
I will straight up admit that I used to be one of those girls (and, briefly, one of those women) who would go on about how terrible girls were, conveniently ignoring the fact that I was one. This is what they called "internalized misogyny," folks. Buying into the whole "girls are naturally backstabbing and awful" rhetoric is bad. Instilling that view into your children, boys and girls, is even worse. Please don't.
"Men Aren't Capable Of Caring For Themselves. They Need Us."
This is one of those creepy things people say that sounds like it's belittling men (and it is) but it's more importantly acting to keep women subservient and in their place. It's like, "The Patriarchy isn't holding us back! We as women are just so superior that we need to spend out lives in service to men or they'll DIE!" (Or something. I don't know. It's crap.) Neither your daughter, who should focus on her own self-sufficiency and goals, nor your son, who should grow up confident that he doesn't need to be mothered by every woman in his life from the womb to the tomb, will get anything useful out of this "wisdom."
So be careful and think twice about what you're saying to and around whom. Because no matter their gender, little pitchers have big ears.