So February just got the one post. Nothing I can do about that now, seeing as how it's March and all. Well, this will probably be pretty long, to make up for it.
Let me first tell you a little about my parents. They're celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary later this year, so a little arithmetic will tell you that they got married in 1962. While I don't think they were ever your classic full-blown hippie-types, they tended to gravitate toward more progressive political and social views, and their approach to marriage and parenting was definitely influenced by some of the social changes that were taking place during that era. I played with the Sunshine Family dolls (and also a goodly collection of Barbies, I might add) while listening to the Free to Be album. And okay, so I might have used the Erector Set to build Barbie furniture on occasion, but at least that taught me how to use a wrench. When I was three, I got a set of real (child-size) tools for Christmas, including a saw with a metal blade that could cut real wood. When I was eleven my parents got me a kit to build an actual computer, and I spent weeks soldering all the components into the printed circuit board. (And I didn't have a single bad solder joint or short circuit -- a fact which my father lorded over his college-age computer science students.) When I was in high school my father and I aimed a laser beam through a diffraction grating in the garage, and carried out a quick estimate of the speed of light. He bought a used car with the engine in cardboard boxes, just so that he and I could have the experience of rebuilding an engine together.
In short, my parents took the view right from the start that there was absolutely nothing that my sister and I couldn't do because we were girls, except pee standing up. And what's amazing is that they didn't self-consciously force themselves into that attitude; frankly, I don't think it ever occurred to them that there was anything we couldn't do. Pretty cool, no?
And I think it's safe to say that that attitude is now mainstream -- if not universally implemented -- in our society. (Although a quick trip to Toys-BackwardR-Us will confirm that the toy industry has some serious catching up to do.) While many parents still ooh and aaah over little pink dresses and My Little Pony, they'd smack anyone who suggested that their daughters shouldn't wear jeans or climb the monkey bars or play with Tonka trucks or like bold primary colors.
And yet ... how do we feel when our sons pick out the pink toy? Or want to play with dolls? Or flinch when in the flightpath of a kickball? Or cry a little too often? When they like to play house? How would you feel if your son asked for a Barbie doll? What if he wants the girl's bike with the banana seat and streamers?
If we're being completely honest, I think most of us would admit that we're a lot more comfortable with a girl on a red bike than a boy on a pink bike.
Why is this? Speaking for myself, my first reaction is fear that my son will suffer social repercussions. If other kids see him riding a pink bike, he'll be tormented and ostracized. In other words, it's society's fault. Okay, so Rome wasn't built in a day -- change takes time, and I can't expect everyone else to be as progressive and rational as I am (she says with suitably self-deprecating sarcasm). But then don't I have a responsibility to live according to my values, to face down the repressive judgement of others, and if my son wants a pink bike then dammit he can have one, and I'll smack anyone who says he shouldn't, yadda yadda yadda...? But then I run into the accusation of raising my child like a social experiment, and using him as a pawn in my own personal-is-political battle with the world. And let's not forget the whole tormenting and ostracizing thing. But then, how much damage do I cause when I say, "No, honey, pink is for girls, and other people will tease you if you ride a pink bike, and we should always conform to societal expectations in order to avoid the harsh judgements of others."*
(I don't have answers for any of those questions. They're just kinda swirling around in my mind.)
The moderate, reasonable approach seems to be to find ways of gently redirecting him toward the blue bike. I don't know how I feel about that. I only have one shot at raising this kid, and I want to get it (mostly) right.
So the bottom line is, how come girls and women get to cross traditional gender boundaries all the time (in their behavior, dress, and choice of activity), but boys and men are still boxed in? Is this an issue for you in raising your children, and if so how do you deal with it?
*By the way, I feel a strange compulsion to clarify that Ben has not evinced any interest (thus far) in having a pink bike. He did pick out a pink Hello Kitty water bottle, and he shares my interest in dollhouses (although he's more interested in setting up his Beatles figurines on top for a rooftop concert than in staging the rooms in all their Victorian glory). But I'm mainly talking hypothetically here. Why did I feel the need to explain all this?
Girls are beautiful
3 months ago