Bending Gender 2

photo courtesy of http://www.lubirdbaby.com

Being female and experiencing sexism in various guises over the years, I’m acutely aware of things that affect my daughter. I don’t want her thinking she has to play with dolls, avoid physical activities, or adhere to certain expectations just because she happens to be a girl. I’d love for her to grow up feeling strong and courageous enough to be herself, and to stand up for herself when facing sexism or sexual harassment, etc. Until I wrote my first Bending Gender post, though, I hadn’t really thought about the sexism that my son faces.

I’m talking sexism in it’s milder forms – comments and assumptions – that are not intended to harm, but could probably play a role, or a support role, in shaping how kids act and what they choose to play with.

For example, in one day I noted various comments that were made to, or in front of, him from a couple of different people:

“You’re such a mummy’s boy, aren’t you?” (in response to him wanting a cuddle from me)

“He’s such a boy – climbing up everything, little trouble-maker” (even though my daughter did the same thing at that age)

“Don’t forget he’s male – he can only do one thing at a time” (I found this one a bit insulting!)

“No, you don’t want that, here, play with your truck” (phew! that princess dress would’ve tainted any future manliness for sure)

Now, I’ll admit, they’re tame comments that certainly meant no harm. My son’s not going to seek therapy for them down the track. Yet they do buy into the role that males are supposed to play in our society, and at a very early age. These little comments, and all the other influences around him, help to shape what toys he chooses, what games he’ll play, how he’ll treat other kids, and his own view of what it is to be a male.

I guess this is all very “well, duh” to people. I don’t know. Battle of the sexes differences has always irked me. I don’t like to just identify myself with being female – I feel part of a bigger community. I guess I feel protective of my kids – I want them to be the ones that do the choosing for themselves, who decide what they enjoy, rather than feeling they have to fit in with other people’s expectations. To have generalisations and societal labels describing them at such a young age just seems wrong to me. Especially because kids are so impressionable & eager to please.

Maybe it’s because I’ve never really felt that I’ve managed to work out what I’m about – I hate pigeon-holing myself as a certain personality type, or having particular characteristics, because, really, they change depending on my mood. Maybe it’s because I resent other people telling me what they think I should do with my life, or those of my children. Maybe it’s because I just enjoy watching these beautiful little personalities discover and learn and I know I’ll love them no matter how they turn out.

Parents react differently when their babies are mistaken for the other sex. Some are indignant, some are fine. Strangers are apologetic when they ask ‘boy or girl?’ Most babies under one or two could really pass as either, though, couldn’t they?

Isn’t it more interesting to observe their personalities grow, rather than put them in the girl or boy box? Or are we too lazy to pepper small-talk with anything other than generalisations about boys and girls?

And, hey, I’m guilty of generalisations, too! It is an automatic conversation-filler sometimes. How do we break out of it, though?

Bending Gender

gender neutral toy catalogueI’m not really that into gender neutral parenting, in that I don’t set out to do it. I think I’m more into regardless-of-gender parenting. Is that a term?

Most people believe boys will be boys and girls will be girls – boys innately like trucks, girls will always end up playing with a doll.

However, having both a boy and a girl, I really don’t think that’s the case. There is just soooooo much influence over what they will play with from those around them, that I don’t think it is innate at all.

From early days, my son has been getting comments from grown-ups judging what he’s wearing and playing with. Some clothes are too pretty for him, apparently (he wears some of his sister’s hand-me-downs – don’t panic, not dresses), and if he carries a dollie around there are plenty of comments judging it to be a gay or girlie thing to do.

He’s one year old.

A one-year old kid can understand a lot, though. A mocking aside about his infatuation with his sister’s hairbrush compared to the smiles and encouragement from the same grown-ups when playing with trucks, balls and hammers. That sort of feedback must play a role in his choice of toys as he grows.

I have to admit, I’d previously subscribed to the school of thought that there were innate differences between the sexes. Which is weird, because I can read maps. When I read a few articles about Cordelia Fine’s research, I started to change my tune. I started noticing little things about the way my daughter was treated (Fine’s book came out before my son was born). The way people were so quick to comment on her prettiness, her clothes and they’d worry that she was getting dirty when playing (whereas I think a dirty kid = a kid having a good time), or that she was too young to play on certain playground equipment (she wasn’t and I was spotting her anyway).

The different toys they each received for their first birthdays is interesting to note:

  • daughter – lots of books, playdough set, kawasaki quad bike (from her awesome uncle who knows I used to ride a kwakka myself)
  • son – cars, trucks, noisy push-along toys.

Now, bear in mind that our friends aren’t in any way sexist, they tend to have the same parenting style as ourselves, and all the gifts were beautiful – in fact, many were quite gender-neutral, because those are the kind of friends we have. It’s just interesting to note that Miss got mostly quiet toys (besides the kwakka) and Master got mostly noisy ones.

Toys are only a small portion of the way we influence kids in gender roles, though. Mostly, they learn through our own roles, how we relate to other people, and what we convey directly to them.

My daughter knows I work, like Dad does, but she thinks that all bosses are men, because mine happens to be a man. She thinks that Dad is the better driver, because even though I ferry them around during the week, I often get MLM to drive on weekends because I’m so sleep-deprived.

I don’t know if I’m being paranoid or pedantic, but I do know that I don’t want my daughter’s options narrowed because she’s a girl. I know I can’t keep her away from the fairy dresses for much longer. I just want her to know that she doesn’t have to be a fairy just because everyone else expects her to be.

There are so many other people who influence her now: childcare, playgroup kids & mums, cousins, grandparents, strangers. Some of these influences are going to be fantastic, some questionable. I don’t really have much control over that anymore, and that’s fine. I know both my kids will turn out okay, and that if they do follow typical gender interests and roles, it’s not a failure on my part, or some innate path they’re following. It’s just the culture we are a part of, and there’s no way you can block that out, or should want to completely.