My boys can wear pink. My boys can have dolls. I’ll paint my boys’ nails. I would raise them no differently whether they were boys or girls.
Not that easy though, is it?
I am a fervent supporter of raising boys and girls without reinforcing any gender** stereotypes that are out there. Yet, my statements above are actually implying that those things are ‘girl’ things – therefore perpetuating the stereotype. A mindfuck, I know. I tie myself in knots trying to raise children whose interests are geared by their personalities, not their assigned sex at birth.
And generally speaking, I think Husband Dearest and I do a great job. Our boys like books, imaginative games and annoying the hell out of us – pretty gender-free activities. They love building train tracks, throwing balls and playing pirates – often seen as ‘boy’ activities. Monster Major can’t function without his nails painted, and Monster Minor could spend hours carting round a handbag – clearly observing Mummy far too closely. It drives me insane to see straightforward toys ‘genderised’ – baby walkers in primary colours (presumably geared towards all children), but also sold in pinks and purples (presumably geared at girls). Are my presumptions the thing that is wrong with this branding, or is it the ideas behind the colour choices? Would a parent of a girl baby not buy a walker, simply because it is red, yellow and blue rather than varying degrees of pink? I really, really hope not. In choosing toys for the boys, I do always go the most gender-neutral route I can see.
And still, there are natural inclinations towards traditionally gendered toys. Whilst I’m yet to see either of the boys choose blue or pink (they prefer yellow, orange and red – crisis averted), there have been many times when their race towards the toy garage has made me question my success in being gender neutral. How ridiculous am I?! My boys are playing with a toy, and I’m worrying that I haven’t made them girly enough. Similarly, I see them brushing a doll’s hair and feel pride that my boys don’t shun a toy based on it’s target market. It’s such pointless concern; they are children playing with toys. That’s the success of the situation.
Such a passionate investor in gender neutral child rearing am I, that I have read studies on the matter. There’s little weighting to the evidence either way from a nature/nurture point of view. Some studies on babies show that there’s little in the way of suggesting a certain gender goes for a certain toy, whilst some studies on chimps show a primitive male/female interest in traditionally-seen gender specific toys (ie. females to pots and pans and dolls, males to construction toys).
I read a book which had a chapter on the need for more females in the science and engineering spheres. It suggested that manufacturers had sought to address this gap by making construction toys (Lego, Duplo, Megabloks) in pink and purple. Essentially, what toy makers saw as a fundamental toy for developing science and engineering interests, was redesigned and remarketed specifically for girls. This really enraged me. In attempting to fulfil a gender balance in roles dominated by males, specific ‘girl versions’ were seen as needed… how does this put both genders on an equal footing? The boys shouldn’t use the pink and the girls shouldn’t use the regular version? Perhaps I digress a little. The point of the writer was that redesigning the traditional colours made the toy more appealing and accessible to girls. This way of thinking, I believe, is the problem’s essence. That we suggest to children that things must look/work in a certain way, if they are to be suitable for their gender. Of course, upon reading this chapter, I inevitably panicked and felt the need to buy a big wagon of ‘girly’ Megabloks, to buck the gender trending. What a fuck up I am.
My two biggest challenges when attempting to raise the boys fuelled by their interests and not their gender, have been as a result of Monster Major. For anyone that doesn’t know him, he’s living proof that not all boys are snips and snails and puppy dogs’ tails. He doesn’t fit the rough and tumble, tough nut template so readily cut out for boys. He’s a sensitive soul and is rather a fan of all things pretty and just so.
When shopping for Clarks Doodles last summer, I showed him the boys’ range. Whilst not as boring as most boys’ shoes, they stuck to the only colours boys’ shoes tend to come in – blue and brown. (Perhaps I lie, there may have been khaki green too.) Having pondered over the aeroplane or pirate ones, Monster Major wandered towards the girls’ shoes. Well. Red, pink, yellow, purple, shiny bits, lights, sparkles, flowers stuck on, glitter galore. What toddler doesn’t want to wear something that amazing!? Hell, I’ve only just chucked my hot pink sequinned shoes away! And yet, I just couldn’t bring myself to buy the bright pink glittery pair he fell for. I hated myself for giving the reason ‘because they’re for girls’, but that was the reason. It was the reason I swore I’d never give. I wasn’t sure I (let alone his Dad!) could let him walk around in such obviously girly shoes. We left with the navy aeroplane Doodles, and that decision went against everything I felt I believed in.
The next dilemma is still ongoing. I have bought Monster Major a second-hand dolls’ house for his birthday. I do think dolls’ houses get a bad gendered press. At the end of the day, role-play is role-play regardless of whether it’s with a dolls’ house, pirate ship, Barbies or Action Men. Anyway, the house is very pink. I’m going to paint over this, partly to ‘de-genderise’ it (which, I know, is a contradiction in terms), mostly because Monster Major isn’t that interested in pink. So I began where all budding projectors begin: Pinterest. I searched ‘Boys dolls house’ and was greeted with superhero/fire station heaven. None seemed quite right for Monster Major’s interests. And then I checked myself. Why did I prefix it ‘boys’!? How had I found myself thinking I had to match the house to something he wasn’t at all interested in, just because he has a willy? I searched ‘dolls house’ and was able to pin so much more.
This post is yet more evidence of how ridiculously contradictory my inner voice is, I know. I don’t know why it makes me happy to see my little boys playing with stick-on earrings and unicorns. And why I sometimes feel uneasy if they play with trains for too long. Those feelings alone show I’m not parenting gender-neutrally. And yet, not enforcing gender specifications on the Monsters’ little obsessions is one of my biggest parenting ambitions. I know my ultimate hopes for the boys are that they grow up happy, confident, respecting themselves and others and understanding who they are and the world around them. (Not much then, hey?) Unfortunately, the stereotypes of the sexes plays a huge role in the big picture of the world. And I feel that won’t change unless we challenge them, in our own little picture. And that’s all me and the Monsters are trying to muddle through. Let’s hope I don’t fuck them up too much in the process.
* Probably best not to mention the fact that both Husband Dearest and I desperately and openly wanted girls, not boys. Mostly for the dressing in bows and tutus, on my part. Best not to mention that at all when doing my raa-raa-gender-equality pitch. Luckily, Monster Major wanted a tutu so that was appeasing. And it’s turquoise. I just need to sew a massive gun or something on it and it’s the epitome of gender neutral… No…?
** Gender/sex/male/female are hotly debated concepts. I’m actually pretty well rehearsed in de Beauvoir, Kristeva, and Butler (yes, I know they’re all female). I use these terms generally without any loaded meaning. Though, if you must know, my personal theory sits somewhere between de Beavoir’s social construction of gender and Butler’s performative gender roles. (Not really, I just memorise buzz-words and clever sounding names)