Don't send the wrong message, but go, girl!

November 03, 1996|By Susan Reimer

IF YOU KNEW Hannah like we know Hannah, you wouldn't be surprised to hear that the principal called. Hannah is 7 years old, shaped like a bullet, and moving through life like one.

Compactly and powerfully built, with a gravelly, grown-up voice and a determined manner, Hannah takes no prisoners, gives no quarter, suffers no fools.

If you knew Hannah like we know Hannah, you'd never wonder whether Hannah will make a place for herself in this world.

You would also not be surprised to learn that the principal called Hannah's parents and reported, in a very nice way, that Hannah had de-pantsed a little boy during recess and perhaps they should all meet and talk.

"We never got the full story," said Hannah's father, his voice perpetually weary from being Hannah's father. "Was it a tug or full down to the ankles?

"But to the principal's credit, she just suggested that we have a talk with Hannah and did not make this a constitutional question."

That's good, because Hannah's father had plenty of questions of his own.

"At first I thought, 'Well, this is just another childhood thing.' Then I thought, 'No. Hannah did this to embarrass me. This is directed at me. This is about me.'

"Things like this should never involve our own children. It should just involve other people's children, so we can comment on it."

Everyone did, of course. Hannah's father is a very funny guy, and his retelling of Hannah's adventures always draws a crowd.

"If this was someone else's child, I'd be laughing, too. But no one had any good advice. You could see they were all glad it wasn't their kid."

Hannah's father and mother thought hard about how to respond. That was their first mistake. "Do we say nothing, cut off her allowance, put her on bread and water for a month, go to the library and check out a book on Freud?

"Whenever parents worry about whether they are doing the right thing, you can be pretty sure they are not doing the right thing. If you have to think about it, that's the first sign that you are going to do the wrong thing."

Hannah's father says he views child-rearing questions like this -- what do you do if your daughter pulls down a boy's pants on the playground -- as the adult version of the Scholastic Assessment Test, a kind of parental SAT.

"Raising kids is all multiple choice, and they tell you before you take the SATs: DON'T GUESS. Don't ever guess. You will be penalized for guessing. It will count against you if you guess.

"I am guessing here. I am probably guessing wrong and, just like I did on my SATs, I am going to score, like, 480 out of a possible 1,600."

The first impulse Hannah's father had was to let the children resolve it with the kind of "Lord of the Flies" rough justice that operates on playgrounds.

"If you get out of their way, kids take care of their own affairs. They punish their own. They have their own little playground judicial system.

"But after what happened in North Carolina, with the first-grader who kissed the girl and was accused of sexual harassment, I felt like I had to file a friend-of-the-court brief. There is a serious side to this.

"We told Hannah that you never embarrass another child.

"We kind of left the whole Constitution out of it. No Aesop's fables, no quotations from the Bible.

"We just said that she would not have liked it if he had done that to her. That there was no 'coolness quotient' in this for her."

Joe thought it was cool.

" Hannah flagged a kid on the playground?" said my middle-school son as he laughed with delight.

Joe has known Hannah since she was a baby, and has always had a respect for her that he accords no other girls. It is born, I suspect, of a healthy fear.

"Way to go, Hannah," crowed Joe. "Did she, like, get his pants all the way down, or just flag his boxers?"

"That's not clear," I said to Joe, with the irritation in my voice that I knew was appropriate to show.

"And that's not the right response. We're not supposed to cheer from the sidelines while one child humiliates another."

But I was. My secret voice was hooting, "Way to go, Hannah."

I love gumption in a girl, even as I recognize my double standard is wrong. It is the flip side of the kind of permission-to-abuse that has been the subtext of the treatment of little girls and women for generations.

I know that if a little boy had pulled down Hannah's pants on the playground -- or my own daughter's -- I would have demanded chemical castration, and I would have administered it myself. When my feminist politics mix with my maternal instincts, I can be ferocious and unreasonable.

I know this is not right thinking for the new egalitarian world order, but I can't quash my enthusiasm for the spirit I see in Hannah. OK, OK. It's misdirected at the moment, but she is only 7 years old.

It is a fine line we walk as we try to teach our daughters to take the reins of the world, not a back seat. That in order to wear the pants in town, you don't have to pull someone else's off.

What did Hannah's father do?

"We told her to write him a letter of apology. It said, 'I'm sorry.' That's about as much as she could spell. She put some stickers in the envelope for him.

"She put $2 in the card, too, but I took the money out. I tried to explain to Hannah that really wasn't part of the message we wanted to send."

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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