Thursday, March 1, 2012

Boys will be ... whatever they want to be!

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?


fethiye said...

Quentin's favorite color is pink. He is quick to add that he likes light pink, not dark pink. :)

And he has ridden a pink bike when we were in Turkey, for 3 weeks straight. He loved it!

Joy said...

Boys have far more behavioral restrictions than girls today and the usual explanation is that in a society that privileges masculinity, girls on red (or blue) bikes or wearing blue are seen as aspiring to higher status, whereas males wearing pink or riding pink bikes are perceived as chosing to lower their status. In a rigidly hierarchical society the latter is unacceptable. A girl wearing jeans to school draws no attention today (though it was prohibited when I was in school), but imagine what happens when a boy wears a dress. It will take courageous kids, parents, and teachers to change this and a community that provides a safe environment for all.

Madeline said...

Wow, Joy's comment is exactly the kind of answer I would have given in my Intercultural Communication class last spring. Spot on! :)

We often deal with this in both a head-on and roundabout way at work. A lot of our preschoolers, especially in the younger, age-3-turning-4 class, are extremely concerned with gender constraints. They often talk about "girl colors" and "boy colors," and we remind them that all colors are for everyone to use and enjoy. We have kind of a mish-mash of chairs in our room, and the kids usually say the ones they prefer (or the ones they or their friends are sitting in) are for their gender and the other ones are for the other gender (i.e.: "I'm sitting here because this is a girl chair!").

Interestingly, though, a little boy who's almost four and is very into Spiderman and fire fighters and tractors and football brought a Little Mermaid doll several days this week, and none of the other kids made any gender-related comment about it. He told me it used to belong to one of his older sisters, so his parents didn't buy it for him, but I was impressed that his dad, whom I don't know well but strikes me as a "guy's guy" let him bring a "girly" toy to school.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a little girl who's in kindergarten tell me that Star Wars is for boys (I was eating a Star Wars-themed Go-Gurt at lunch), and believe me, I set her straight about that! Fortunately I had a couple of other girls who agreed with me. :)

dlefler said...

This is a difficult one for me. We have two boys, and for the longest time, their favorite color was pink. Matt's favorite color is now red (not due to societal influence, he just changed his mind) and Nolan likes green. I always get irritated when we go to McDonald's, however, and they say, "girl or boy toy?" Right now the choices are little teddy bears and little Star Wars tops - who is to say that a boy might not like a teddy bear, or that a girl might not like a Star Wars top?

Matt did want a puppy purse in the mall the other day - it was covered in glitter and had a pink handle and the purse body was a puppy. We didn't buy it (because we don't buy any toy on the spur of the moment), but he really liked it. We might get it for him later on, but I have to admit I would be afraid for him to take it to school for the ridicule he would endure.

Kindergarten seems to be a huge time in enforced gender norms- the kids are very adamant about what is a "boy toy" and a "girl toy." We're really struggling with Matt to let him love the things he WANTS to love, and not let the other kids tell him what he should like or not like.

krlr said...

We must be related (I know I've said that before), though I was not actually allowed ANY Barbies (had to sneak next door to play with them).

And I don't know the answer to the bigger question. Does the fact that it hasn't come up (he requested a neon orange bike) & I haven't spent anytime thinking about it mean that I've already subconsciously imprinted this disparity into his little head & squashed his desire for a pink bike? Yikes.

Alison said...

Yeah, our culture totally gender imprints kids. And Joy's got the answer I was going to give: we still have a gender hierarchy. The only thing I'd add is that we're also way homophobic, and a boy who likes pink might be gay which, to our homophobic culture, would be terrible.

Far better to just embrace whatever characteristics and preferences emerge in our kids. Pink nail polish on a little boy? Let's make that totally acceptable!

Susannah said...

this is so not connected to this post (although i read it back when you first posted it and AMEN there's a lot for me to comment on this one!!! the gender stuff drives me crazy) but i really appreciate your wise and wonderful posts on ci circle- especially with new parents. i guess i could just email you that, but i was checking in to see if there were any news posts. ;)

skwilson said...

I don't know that I would have felt this way 20+ years ago, but given my experience with Madeline and Alicia, if I had a son I would STRONGLY encourage him to take dance classes.

Oh, and of course that wasn't just any used car you rebuilt with your father, it was an Alfa Romeo Alfetta sedan!

Julia said...

Model year 1976. I learned to drive stick in that car.