Voices: Are you a people-pleaser? It’s time we stopped raising our girls to put themselves last

·5-min read
Voices: Are you a people-pleaser? It’s time we stopped raising our girls to put themselves last

Are we training young girls to be people pleasers? This is something I have been thinking a lot as I raise three daughters.

It is the end of the school year and, much like any other parent, I have been delighted to hear more about what my six-year old twins have been doing at school through their end-of-year report. Among other lovely things about them, a phrase stuck out for me and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. One of my twins had been commended by her teacher for always being “keen to please”.

Now, yes, absolutely we must be considerate of other people’s feelings and children have to learn from a young age how to be empathetic. But I don’t want my daughter to grow up trying to please others at the cost of her own comfort.

People-pleasing is a behaviour that stems from the need to find self-worth in our own validation by others. And once children are given the message that this is a behaviour that will be rewarded, they learn that compliance and conformity will be commended, and individuality will not. Over time, they become fearful of disagreement and discord, even when they do not agree with others, and find it difficult to challenge views that may even be harmful. This is especially problematic when we consider the gendered nature of this expectation.

Of course, similar comments could have been made about a boy. But I kept wondering how much it was her being a girl that shaped these expectations and praise. I can never be sure. But we do know that expectations that women should be nurturing and show positive expressions seemingly become more heightened with age. And these expectations often start from childhood. The idea that girls are more accommodating is one such norm.

The subordination or oppression hypothesis proposed by Marianne LaFrance of Yale University in 1997 suggested that the gender differences in non-verbal communication and expression mirrored the status differences between men and women in society. Women are less powerful, hold lower status in society and are more vigilant than men. They are more accurate and perceptive in interpreting other people’s emotional expressions and non-verbal behaviour because they need greater vigilance.

Women are also expected to be more quiet, pleasant and pro-social, nurturing and thriving through relationships with others around them. This means that women often become more attuned to other people’s emotions, and well-versed in modulating their emotions to suit the context and the needs of those around them. We learn these norms through socialisation, and since autonomy is discouraged in women, with agentic rights and choices being taken away from women every day, they become more socialised in sociotropy – the desire to focus on social relationships and comfort of others in their social circle.

We also know that people-pleasing behaviour leads to people feeling unable to express their true authentic emotions, especially anger and frustration.

Gender norms are embedded in our society in such a way that we can very easily take them for granted. A 2019 YouGov survey showed that 64 per cent of women had been told to “smile, it might never happen” or to “cheer up” by someone they did not know well, compared to 49 per cent of men.

This is also problematic when we consider the racialised nature of this expectation, with my daughter being mixed-heritage: brown skin and dark hair. The emotional expectations are also linked to dominance and power so black and brown women also have different expectations placed on them.

It has been observed that social power affects the propensity of a person to smile. Those with more power and higher status do not feel obligated to moderate their emotions as much as those below them in the hierarchy, and feel free to express their positive emotions only when they experience them. However, those with lower power and status can feel obligated to smile even when they are not feeling happy.

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In my upcoming book Hysterical, I show that girls develop a proclivity to appease adults, and often smile to ease discomfort in others. Girls and boys show no significant differences in the amount they smile until they reach early teenage years, when girls start smiling much more than boys, and similar differences have been noticed between teenage boys and girls, and adult women and men.

I do not want my daughter to grow up with these expectations, or believe that her self-worth is linked to how much she is liked or appreciated by others, or how much she is able to suppress her own autonomy in favour of other people’s happiness and comfort. Children who grow up wanting to please other people are more susceptible to peer pressure because they want to fit in and fear being rejected. Such children are also more prone to bullying and manipulation by others.

I am very grateful to my children’s teachers who have done an amazing job with them over the course of a difficult year, but we have to challenge such language, norms and expectations. Often, they are so deeply ingrained in our society that they become internalised by those they harm the most.

Sometimes, we don’t even realise how gendered and harmful it is to place such expectations on our girls from such a young age. It is time we stop complimenting girls and women for being “keen to please”.

Dr Pragya Agarwal’s book, Hysterical: Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions, is available to buy here

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