I think I first heard the quote “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission” when I was a teenager. It was in a silly commercial aimed at men, and I think the idea was that women wouldn’t want their boyfriends to do whatever these advertisers were selling, but the boyfriends should do it anyway and then give their girlfriends a nice card, asking for forgiveness. I now see that kind of marketing as stupid, sexist, and juvenile. At the time, it struck me as sort of funny, but I had a small feeling that the idea behind the commercial, the idea that you should for forgiveness after you do something rather than ask for permission before you do it and run the risk of being denied, was flawed. A couple years later, a teacher at my school said that same quote to me and some of my classmates in reference to something she did that she knew was technically against some rule, but was in fact a good idea. Again, while I felt that I understood her general point, I had a small problem with the phrase.
I was a fairly well-behaved kid. I usually did what I was told. If I had a problem with what I was told to do, I engaged in conversations with the people in charge, under the assumption that they would listen to reason and eventually see my point. This didn’t always happen, but it worked enough that I still see see that strategy as a useful one. But I know that I’m in a pretty privileged position, where the people in charge usually listen to me, and I know that a lot of important social and political changed happens when someone doesn’t do what they’re told, because the people telling them what to do really don’t see that person’s needs as anything worth hearing. So maybe, I thought to myself when I tried to figure out my problem with this phrase, I was too influenced by my agreeable nature and the fact that people usually gave me permission to do the things I wanted to do. Still, every time I heard someone say anything about asking for forgiveness instead of permission, I flinched.
Finally, about a week and a half ago, I figured it out.
I was giving a presentation to prospective parents and students at work, and I based it on a story about how, when I was a student, my classmates and I rarely asked for permission before we did anything. We painted pictures on the walls, held fundraisers and events, started clubs, maybe even enforced our own rules, all with no official permission from teachers, principals, or anyone. We didn’t want to piss people off or break rules. We just did what we thought would be good things to do, and the people in charge trusted that we wouldn’t cause irreparable damage. The first time I gave this presentation, several months ago, I told my audience that I didn’t think no one ever needed permission, but that part of growing up is learning what you can and can’t do without permission, and that, often, people ask for permission as a way of avoiding risks. As long as someone above them on the hierarchy says they can do it, they won’t be the ones getting in trouble.
I planned to say something similar last week, but shortly before the presentation, maybe the night before or maybe five minutes before, I had my realization. So I changed the ending of my story slightly.
“There’s a saying,” I said (or something along these lines), “that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, and I don’t like that saying. I don’t like it partly because it sounds really sneaky, and I don’t think people should be sneaky. But I also don’t like it because you shouldn’t ask for forgiveness.” I don’t remember exactly what I said, but my point was this: My classmates and I rarely got in any kind of trouble for the things that we did, but if we had gotten in trouble, we wouldn’t have then begged our teachers or principals for forgiveness. We would have fixed whatever problem we had caused. We would have painted over the pictures we had put on the walls, canceled the events or redirected the money we raised somewhere more appropriate, changed or cancelled the clubs we had started, stopped enforcing our rules. Because getting forgiveness from someone doesn’t actually do much good. Maybe it makes you feel better, maybe it makes the person giving to to you feel better, but it doesn’t solve anything. It’s the other side of an apology, but apologies mean nothing unless they come with a change in attitude or behaviour.
Whenever I hear someone say that they plan to go ahead with whatever it is that they want to do even though they know they shouldn’t because it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission, I get a strong feeling that they’ll probably do something very similar later on. They might say they’re sorry, but they won’t mean it. So if you have something you want or need to do, and you feel it’s important enough to do even without permission, why bother with the forgiveness? You shouldn’t have to apologize for doing the right thing.
I started reading The Princess about a year and a half ago, and it quickly became one of my favourite comics. It’s about a young girl named Sarah who faces a lot of bullying and misunderstanding because she’s trans. I love it because it shows Sarah’s struggles and challenges, but also her positive outlook and unsquashable spark. She calls herself a princess, and she radiates love and joy in every direction, which makes it that much harder to see people tell her that she’s a freak or try to stop her from being who she is. I will totally spoil parts of the story for you, but I think the comic’s awesome enough to read even if you know pieces of the plot ahead of time, and anyway it’s still going on so I won’t be spoiling the entire story, so you should still read both what I’m going to say and the entire comic.
I think what I like most about The Princess is the way that Christine Smith, the artist, captures the injustices that children often face at the hands of people who are supposed to, and often, who probably intend to, support and care for them. Sarah has a great support group that includes her dad, her aunt, and a few friends and family friends, but Wendy, her mom, really doesn’t support her gender identity. Her attitude and behaviour have both improved since the beginning of the story. She went from calling Sarah “Seth” and trying to prevent her from ever dressing in girls’ clothes to now saying she accepts that her kid is trans but doesn’t want her to dress like a girl outside of the house. But really, she implicitly tells Sarah that being trans is something to be ashamed of, rather than making any effort to help her deal with the bullying and oppression that she regularly faces. Sarah stays quite patient with her mother, which is simultaneously uplifting and heartbreaking to read. Her patience makes me love her more, but she shouldn’t have to suffer while her mother comes to terms with her identity. If Wendy needs to go on a transformative journey, that should be her problem, not Sarah’s. We get some acknowledgement of that in these strips, but again, Sarah needs to wait while her mother slowly learns that transphobia is bad.
(On a side note, I don’t know how slowly Wendy’s journey has been progressing. I’ve been watching it for the past year and a half, like I said, but the comic comes out twice a week, and several strips take place within the same day, so maybe this whole thing has been happening over the course of a month or less. That would be slightly better, but I think my point that Sarah has to suffer while Wendy deals with her own problems with diversity and sensitivity still stands.)
Last Monday’s strip actually made me angry, because it so clearly demonstrates what I think is a serious problem in the way kids are treated when they get justifiably angry. Sarah has put up with Wendy’s crap for a while, and she’s taken it with more patience and understanding than Wendy maybe deserves. When she finally snaps and calls Wendy a poophead, it’s pretty clear that she does it out of complete frustration that she has every right to feel. Wendy responds, however, by sending her to her room. As of Friday’s strip, Sarah is in her room, hating her mother, stewing in anger, crumpling up her princess crown, and breaking my heart. Maybe she’ll come out and deliver a righteous speech to her mother about inclusion and acceptance and not the abuse of authority. Maybe she will apologize and let her anger stew even more. Maybe she’ll call her father or her aunt or a friend for support and have a calm conversation with her mother later on. Maybe she’ll lash out, run away, and never speak to her mother again. Unless she starts engaging in destructive or intentionally hurtful behaviour, I will probably think she’s in the right, regardless of how she reacts. Wendy lost any potential for moral high ground that she might have had going into this (she had very little to begin with, so she didn’t lose much), when she responded to Sarah’s anger at her behaviour as though it were a temper tantrum.
I frequently don’t think adults treat children as well as they could. Grown ups have inherent privilege and power over kids. They have more say than children do in both the social and legal rules of society. They have more independence than kids and are therefore more often in a position to walk away from an unpleasant or unhealthy situation. Adults are also more likely to be taken seriously than children, so if they can’t leave a bad situation, they have more avenues to recourse. This is not to say that all grown ups have an easier time than all kids. I know that some kids have more privilege than some adults, but as a class, adults are the privileged ones.
I want to say that we need to treat children like adults, but I feel like that phrase can be misinterpreted too easily. I know many people who say we need to treat kids like adults, and for some of them, that seems to mean expecting children to be as mature and as reasonable as the most reasonable and mature adults are on their best days. It also sometimes seems to mean reacting with serious anger and disappointment when kids fail to live up to that standard. The whole thing just looks pointless and frustrating to me, both for the adults and for the kids. Children are learning how to be mature and reasonable, and we need to support them while they learn. They will do unacceptable things, and they need to be told that those things are unacceptable. They will do stupid things, and they need to learn what makes those things stupid. We should accept that children will do childish things – it’s not a coincidence that those words have the same root – and we need to sometimes help them learn from those things that they do, so that they can stop acting like children around the same time they stop being children.
When I say that we need to treat children like adults, what I mean is that we need to give them the same respect that we give adults. Children’s bodies and brains might not be fully developed, but their rights to be taken seriously should start as soon as they’re born. We need to treat kids like adults not in our expectations for them, but in our reactions to them. When kids complain, say things aren’t fair, or lash out in anger, we need to seriously consider that they might be absolutely right, and then we need to think about how we can work with them to make things better. It isn’t easy. Like I said before, children frequently say and do things that are unacceptable, and when that’s paired with a complaint, it can be tempting to brush off their complaint as whining. But I don’t think it’s at all helpful to ignore a person’s beef just because of how they voiced it. If a grown up tells a child that they won’t listen to their problems until they can talk about them in an adult way, they shut down the conversation, both denying the kid an opportunity to work on voicing complaints in a more mature way, and minimizing the kid’s problems, sending the message that all you need to do is wait until you have power, and then you can decide whose gripes are worthy of your time.
Wendy obviously has a lot of learning to do, and her interactions with Sarah are clearly complicated by her own struggles with Sarah’s identity. That might explain her behaviour, but it certainly doesn’t excuse it. The Princess is an awesome comic. Christine Smith does a really great job of showing how different forms of oppression intersect with each other, and how Sarah is doubly disenfranchised because she’s not just trans, but also a kid.