Redstocking Grandma's open call for her Nonsexist Childrearing Project led me to reflect on my upbringing and how I am raising my two young daughters. I am someone you might expect to be rigidly and consciously raising my daughters in a nonsexist way: I am a feminist, working in medicine, a traditionally male-dominated field. I consider myself low maintenance in my grooming and appearance, both by choice and by convenience (there are a million other things I'd rather do with the time it would take to put on makeup of blowdry my hair, starting with sleeping). But I am also a girly girl sometimes, and my favorite colors include fuschia and purple. I wear pants a lot of the time, but I also love to wear dresses. I admit that I like chivalry sometimes. As a result, while I am thoughtful about the messages I show my girls regarding gender roles, I am not dogmatic. My girls love to wear pink, and dresses, and I don't stop them from wearing those. I don't stop their dad from wearing pink and purple, either.
When I was growing up, there really was not much in the way of commercialism, and certainly very little of it was available to me. With an older brother I shadowed, I essentially grew up playing with whatever he did. That means I built forts, played with those little green army figures, rode bikes, collected rocks, and sometimes tadpoles.
But I did it wearing dresses almost all the time. My parents, both scientists, were frugal, and that was part of the reason I never owned many dolls. I played with my brother's hand me downs. The one time a year my parents would splurge on things would be over the holidays, when there was a fantastic array of science related kits and toys for sale at their research institute. I drooled over the chemistry sets, spy kits, and fiberoptic flashlights we received. I also hung out with both of my parents from time to time in their laboratories.
I was, from the beginning, a serious child and curious student, and as a result, rarely got in trouble at school. But one time, around 3rd grade, I was in serious trouble. My father had brought home something interesting from work to let us have for a few days, and I had brought it to school. I thought everyone at school would be really interested in this treasure as well, but the cafeteria aides did not agree. I guess the little glass jar of rat brains (plural), floating in formaldehyde, were not quite appropriate for me to be showing off at lunch. Not very girly, either.
I am certain that my parents were not explicitly trying to raise me in a non-sexist, feminist way (they would not have even understood those terms, as recent immigrants). As new arrivals, they knew the path to a better life was through education. They made it clear that there would be no limit to the educational opportunities open to me and my brother, and no differentiation between us. The sky was the limit, limited only by our ambition. I never wanted to be the first girl or woman to do anything; I just wanted to be the first and the best.
How I was raised (as a gender-neutral scientist) may explain my approach to raising my girls. I am conscious about not creating rigid gender roles for them, and in a relaxed way am trying to keep their world as gender neutral as possible. When I was able to spend the most time with them, in their infancy and toddlerhoods, I introduced them to books, music, nature and science, as opposed to ballet and gymnastics. It is normal to them that doctors can be female, since their mom is. They see me cook and bake, because that is my obsession. But they have also seen me use a drill and a hammer, and they have observed me managing the all-male team who worked on our house. Through my example, I hope my daughters are growing up unaware that many people believe that some jobs are for men, and others for women, either in or outside the home. We are lucky to be raising them in Northern California, where most people we know are like-minded.
The one arena in which I am unbending is regarding dolls. My daughters have babydolls, which are completely genderless (in fact, their dolls have never had proper names, but instead somewhat bland names such as "yellow baby" and "pink baby"). But I won't let them buy a Barbie, or a Bratz doll, and have gone so far as to give away those dolls when well-meaning friends or colleagues have given them as gifts. Having these dolls just doesn't make any sense to me, since they don't resemble any normal type of human, and I have no interest in promoting an unrealistic body image.
How has this played out? I don't know what this indicates, but my older daughter, having gone through a Princess phase, now has a penchant for reading dry biographies. My little one wants to be a pirate when she grows up. But we know that none of us can isolate our kids from outside influences. While I restrict their television watching as much as possible, you wouldn't know it from what they have learned from other kids at school. Sure enough, from preschool age, I have heard my daughters talk about "boy things" and "girl things."
And so, I interrogated:
"What are 'boy things'?" I asked my second grader.
"Boy things are things like Star Wars, superheroes." she said, in the tone of, don't you know anything? "Why did you like that stuff when you were little, Mama? Did you like Transformers? Did you watch Spiderman?"
"Well, I did that because I did everything your uncle did."
She thought for a minute. "I like boy things! I like Pokemon and Star Wars."
"Why do you like those?"
"Because they're fun, they're cute."
"Why are they boy things?"
"Because a lot of boys like them." (Makes sense.)
"Can girls play with them?"
"What are girl things?"
"Strawberry Shortcake, Princess things, Wizard of Oz and Charlie Brown ."
"Are there girl colors and boy colors?"
"Boys like dark blue and green, like me, and girls like pink and purple and violet and yellow and red," she answered confidently.
"Why do you like dark blue and green?"
"They are pretty to me." (Again in the tone of, why are you asking the obvious?)
True words, from the mouths of babes. So it seems that what my kids have figured out so far is that there may be "boy" and "girl" labels on colors, toys, and activities, but-- and this distinction is crucial-- both boys and girls can like any of these, if they want to.
So far, so good.
© Linda Shiue, 2010