Photo by Dreampictures/Blend Images
Three years ago, on a beautiful fall day during my daughter’s freshman year of high school, I happened upon her in a huddle with a few of her friends, whispering about an incident involving a boy and a girl I shall call Amber and Nate.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Ugh. Nate asked Amber to go to homecoming,” my daughter said. “She saw him coming down the hall and hid underneath a desk. But then after class he found her and asked her and now she has to go with him and she really, really doesn’t want to.”
“Why didn’t she just say no?” I asked.
“Because,” she responded, “if she says ‘no,’ none of the other boys will ask her. She’ll get blackballed. They keep a list.”
She said this as if she were complaining about rush hour traffic: a drag, but what can you do? Incredulous, I questioned her friends, who affirmed it happens at their schools too. They looked embarrassed while I ranted: “Why don’t the boys just line the girls up on stage and draw numbers and choose whoever they want? Why ask at all?” My son, then a sophomore, shrugged. “It’s not a big deal,” he said. “How else would the nerdy science guys get dates for the dance?”
“It’s just a dance,” one mom told me. “I want my daughter to be nice. I wouldn’t want her to hurt a boy’s feelings.”
Not me. I would want her to hurt a boy’s feelings. Not maliciously. But if a girl doesn’t want to go out with my son, I want her to politely say no, his feelings be damned. In fact, I hope that by now, at 19, his feelings have been dinged so often he has learned to live with them, to shrug off his bruised ego and disappointments—not to deny a girl’s right to direct her own life. I hope he and all his buddies, good kids who spent their high school years in my basement eating pizza and watching ESPN after hockey and lacrosse games, practiced not just the art of shooting and passing and winning and losing, but of gracefully accepting a “no.”
Unfortunately, statistics suggest otherwise. According to several studies, one out of five women will be sexually assaulted in college. An oft-cited 1987 investigation found that of the young men involved in date rape, 84 percent claimed they did not realize that what they did amounted to rape. Nearly 30 years later, Stanford student Brock Turner was caught trying to have sex with an unconscious 23-year-old woman in January. Sentenced to six months in jail, Turner did not deny the facts at trial. Instead, he asserted—and managed “to convince the world,” as the victim said—that “he had simply been confused.”
In every generation, the rules of romantic engagement shift, but the one value that transcends legitimate confusion is an individual’s right to say yes or no—something that should instantly negate the illegitimate confusion Turner claimed. If we teach our daughters to say yes to a homecoming date even though they want to say no, they lose that right; we undermine their ability to hear and honor their own needs. After all, how do they know when the demands of “being nice” end? Should they say yes to a drink they don’t want? Or a kiss? What about sex? The fact is, rejection at any level stings. As one mom angrily pointed out to me, a girl who refused her son’s homecoming request so hurt him that “he may never ask anyone to a dance again.”
I am clearly in battle mode when I say: So be it. Because while I teach my children the importance of kindness, it is not my daughter’s job to ensure that the science nerd—or the quarterback of the football team, for that matter—gets a date to the dance. When we deprive our daughters of the opportunity to learn how to say no, we also deprive our sons of the opportunity to learn how to hear no. In my experience, good friends, good parenting, and a good binge watch of That Seventies Show will get most boys past the pain and open to this life lesson: They are not entitled to “Yes” in life, “No” is not an affront, and loyalty means bringing Doritos to share with the guys while watching TV—not blackballing girls who hurt their feelings. It’s not just about a dance, it’s about self-determination, and it is a big deal.