I recently came across a post by a teacher about how she handled a little girl in her class who didn't have the typical girl behaviors and preferences. You've probably seen it, too- it was linked to from lots of blogs.
It is a great post, written by a teacher who sounds wonderful. I am glad our society is getting more accepting of little girls who want to dress and act more like we expect little boys to. It made me think about the furor over the little baby in Canada whose gender was being kept a secret and the baby's older brother, Jazz- and my reaction to that.
And this clarified some of my thoughts on the recent discussions about the "girl" LEGO sets, the Princess phase, and all that.
It has become clear to me that the reason that I'm uncomfortable with a lot of the discussions about gender specific toys is that they include an implicit judgment of the typically girl toys and of typically female pursuits. It is a fine line between advocating for little girls to have a wide open field when dreaming about their future careers and instilling an idea that being a hair stylist or a nurse is somehow less than being a mechanic or a scientist, and frankly, it seems like we're coming down on the wrong side of that line sometimes. And, as I wrote in those earlier posts, I am deeply uncomfortable with the message our culture sends that being into princesses (or, for the older girls and women, fashion and makeup) is somehow incompatible with an interest in building things or studying science. As I described in the gender bender post, I came up against that stereotype in college, and it was harmful. In fact, it may have been the source of my most serious doubts about pursuing a degree and eventual career in science.
The really disturbing thing about these issues is that they are coming from both sides of the political spectrum. I expect this nonsense from conservative traditionalists who think that women's place is in the kitchen, but it comes from people who consider themselves progressive, too. The same people who were defending Jazz's right to wear purple dresses and put his hair in braids wrote comments that said I was raising my children in a "pink ghetto" because we haven't banned the Disney princesses from our house. I don't want Jazz or the little girl in the post I linked to at the top to be bullied for being themselves. But I also don't want Pumpkin to be pre-judged based on her interest in princesses. I realize that the former is more vicious and harmful, but that doesn't mean that the latter is entirely benign.
We need to get to a place where anyone of either gender can be into anything, and not be judged, where we all recognize that the presence of one stereotypically female trait doesn't equal the presence of all stereotypically female traits, and where we don't denigrate those traits, regardless of who is exhibiting them. I want more women in STEM, but I want more male nurses and preschool teachers, too. And I want equal respect for all careers- even for that bogey-woman of the Lego girls discussions, hair stylists. (I mean really, what is up with the disdain for hair stylists? Where would we be without good hair stylists? Given how I feel right now, when I'm past due for a haircut- not a happy place.)
Pumpkin is fairly ignorant of all this nonsense so far. She doesn't see a problem with liking princesses and LEGO. She doesn't think that a love of purple is incompatible with a love of math. She doesn't know that strong language skills and strong spatial reasoning skills aren't supposed to go together (and you know what? She's actually pretty strong in both right now). It breaks my heart to think that soon, our culture is going to tell her that she's wrong. She is going to realize that people- even people who say that they are for equal rights for all- look down on some of her interests, while other people tell her that she is innately inferior at other things that she is actually quite good at, like spatial reasoning, while citing (incomplete and/or over-interpreted) science.
I hate that my culture is going to tear down my little girl's confidence. I want to protect her from that as long as I can, at least until I can start explaining this all to her and help her learn how to make her way through this mess of bullshit with her self-confidence intact. And I'm certainly not going to be the one who tears her down. Princesses are OK in our house, and I've told the adults who visit us that their joking references to gender stereotypes are not acceptable while my daughters are young.
I've also been making conscious decisions about toys and activities- but my decisions are driven primarily by a desire to make sure that her environment stretches all of her skills. I've been heavily influenced by Pink Brain, Blue Brain, by Lise Eliot. I recommend this book highly to anyone who is interested in gender differences, specifically as they impact parenting. Dr. Eliot, a neuroscientist with three kids of her own (one girl, two boys), surveys the literature and finds "surprisingly little solid evidence of sex differences in children's brains." She makes a convincing case for the role of plasticity (or the fact that our brains change in response to its environment) in the gender differences observed in adults. (She also points out that the gender differences in cognitive skills are much smaller than one would think from the popular literature.) As she says, "the male-female differences that have the most impact- cognitive skills, such as speaking, reading, math, and mechanical ability; and interpersonal skills, such as aggression, empathy, risk taking, and competitveness- are heavily shaped by learning. Yes, they germinate from basic instincts and initial biases in brain function, but each of these traits is massively amplified by the different sorts of practice, role models, and reinforcement that boys and girls are exposed to from birth onward."
I won't try to summarize her entire argument here- if you are interested, really, go read the book. But I will explain what it has meant to our parenting. We focus heavily on ensuring that our girls get experiences, via toys and other routes, that will let them grow all of their skills. Dolls are great for practicing empathy. Puzzles and LEGO are great for spatial reasoning. Trucks and cars are great for instilling an instinctive understanding of the laws of physics. Princess dresses are great for stretching the imagination. Etc., etc.
I think that we all start from a somewhat blank slate- evidence indicates that intelligence is only about 50% genetics. From the starting point provided by genetics and prenatal environment, we grow to achieve our potential based on the experiences we have. So my husband and I aim to make our daughters' experiences rich and varied, and to make sure that they get the chance to practice all of their skills. This does not mean that I think it is my job to make sure that their environment is optimal, as defined as "no iota of the potential on that not quite blank slate is squandered." Rather, I think my job is just to make sure that a strong foundation is laid to ensure that they have the skills to pursue their future interests, whatever they may be.
This is why we have Pumpkin taking Chinese lessons- the window of opportunity for language learning is too good to pass up (and she likes them). This is why I didn't just shrug my shoulders and put the puzzles away when Petunia didn't show the same early enthusiasm for them that her sister did. We kept trying different things and found ones she'll play with. Eventually, we figured out that her fine motor development isn't as advanced as Pumpkin's was. The puzzles that she was physically able to do were boring to her. After much experimentation, we discovered that she likes mix and match puzzles (like mix and match fix puzzle) and puzzles that make sounds (like this animal sounds one). We also give her stickers and freely indulge her love of coloring, which will eventually help her fine motor skills come up to speed. And this is why I care that the "starter" LEGO castle didn't have a princess- because I want toys that encourage spatial reasoning AND that will get played with by my princess loving daughter.
To me, the most pernicious thing about the princess phase and other gender specific toys is that they deprive kids of the chance to grow all of their skills. Don't get me wrong- I care about the gender-based career stereotypes in the toys, too. But my (probably naive and arrogant) assumption is that the living example I provide will be more important to my daughters' opinions of their career options that whatever Barbie or LEGO show them. I realize that it isn't all about me and my family, and that most little girls don't have mothers whose career is a traditionally male-dominated one. However, I somehow became a scientist despite the lack of any scientist in my family, male or female, and the abundance of Barbie dolls in my toy chest. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be carpenter, and then a country and western singer, and then a doctor, and then an anthropologist. Of those, only the carpenter had precedence in my family. My parents encouraged my ever changing interests. They contradicted the gender stereotypes when I came up against them, and always told me that I could do whatever I wanted. I'll do the same for my girls, and I think they will be OK.
What do you think about all of this? Tell me in the comments. It may be your last chance to discuss this topic here for awhile- I think I need to move on!