• 28Apr

    Pink and Blue Parenting

    While on a recent jaunt with the kids to a foam-padded migraine-factory known as a ‘soft play centre’, I found myself sitting next to two mums who were there with similar aged boys to my daughter. The kids were getting on well, bounding and stomping about and having a heads-first race down the big slides when one mum pointed them out.

    “Mad aren’t they?!” she exclaimed. The other mum rolled her eyes and they both said together at the same time “BOYS!!” and had a proud little giggle together. Nothing remarkable in that, I’ve heard it dozens of times before; but on this occasion I couldn’t prevent my eyebrows shooting skywards. The winner of the race, and by far most aggressive slide whizzer there, was my daughter.

    It made me reflect how so often lately I have heard mums proudly relate how their sons have boundless energy, or are walloping one another, or keep jumping off the sofa… accompanied by clichéd reference to ‘oh he’s such a boy’, ‘that’s boys for you’, or ‘boys are like that’. It’s a given that this is explanatory, even excusing of behaviour that from a girl may not be ‘expected’. Yet almost every example being given, applies to my girls. Such is the fondness of my newly walking twins’ for climbing on and leaping off furniture, we have all but stripped the playroom bare. (It’s not that I want to discourage them exploring, I just can’t bear another night in A&E).

    I’ve been racking my brains to think of girl equivalents; examples of where I have heard parents proudly boasting of their daughter’s evident femininity or attributing their behaviour to it… but other than the occasional mum talking about how they love ‘making time to do pretty things’ like teaching make-overs and nails to their daughters (we’re talking pre-schoolers … I kid you not *sneaks off for a minute to repeatedly bash head on wall*) I’m drawing a blank. It’s like painting by numbers, only it’s parenting by colour – pink and blue and all that they imbue.

    When looking out for positive affirmation of being female, it is notable primarily by it being mainly about the child’s appearance, or simply by its absence. Yet the behaviour so lauded as ‘boyish’ seems to be merely overlooked when exhibited by girls. At worst it is decried as naughtiness where a boy would be excused. What’s up with that?

    Interestingly, debate about gender and small children seems to have the opposite focus; it’s ALL about what the parents of girls are doing. Too much princess, too much image, not enough sports etc. All valid points, but I find myself asking: What about the parents of boys? What of their role in promoting childhood sexism?

    It seems straightforward to me that the parents of boys are equally responsible for considering gender, yet pro-masculine and anti-feminine sexism is rife and openly displayed. I have lost count of the number of mums who say they wouldn’t dress their sons in pink, but who would put their daughter in boy’s clothes. Of parents who excuse the sometimes aggressive exuberance of being three as a gender, not parenting issue. Of parents who even make daft insinuation about gendered toys/clothes and sexual orientation. Of course there are some who have no choice but to use hand-me-downs and who re-use girls clothes on boys, but rarely in a visible way. I’ve noticed that people who wish to compliment my daughters will almost always do so on their appearance and not behaviour. Many seem to think I’ll be genuinely concerned if they guess the babies’ gender wrong – as though I have failed some basic test in marking them out. Is this all the same with boys? Am I just seeing the girls’ side? (Genuinely interested – I don’t pretend to have all the answers!)

    Fundamentally I can’t believe that these gendered choices, behaviours and activities are the natural selection of the children. I don’t see how they possibly can be. We parent according to our cultural norms; our sexism is evident but politely obscured with children just as it is with adults. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that parents of boys seem able to adopt a position of entitlement where they are not obliged to consider sexism, just as adult males are able to, should they choose. But I am surprised. And oh-so frustrated because it’s so unconscious that to even discuss how people parent their children is taboo, as though you are telling them they are doing a bad job. Despite being perfectly common to highlight inadvertent sexism in the adult world, it’s still taboo to highlight that many parents operate on gender autopilot.

    It’s a quandary. Do we adhere to these ridiculous norms and teach our daughters what is expected of them, and the cultural limitations and prejudices she can expect to find, or does that once again place the responsibility for sexism at the feet of females? Do we let her continue to run, jump, wallop and roll in the mud and risk her arriving at school as an unusually boisterous girl who may then find relating to other children (who have been unwittingly taught ‘the rules’) harder? I know a few mums of sons who have the opposite concerns; that their boys are too gentle, that they won’t manage the rough and tumble of school… just how much are we imposing on these barely-out-of-nappies children anyway?

    We can’t make all of her choices for her, that much is clear. If the history of child-parent relations is anything to go by she wont pay the blindest bit of notice to us no matter how hard we direct our spotlight of experience to illuminate her path. It’s just frustrating to think that she might feel obliged to start taking delicate timid steps along it, when her natural urge is to continue to bound and stomp.


Discussion 15 Responses

  1. April 29, 2012 at 7:52 am

    I agree its a bit of a mine field about the directions we inadvertently take regarding gender. I’m fascinated by the similarities and differences between my twins – a girl and a boy. Who knows how much of this is due to gender and how much to them just being different people. I look forward to them both enjoying some rough and tumble and also some contemplative time (at the moment my son definitely is the one showing the preference for contemplation) – just so long as they get the most out of life.
    Not sure I ever learned the “girl” rules all that well and I don’t feel its caused me problems in life – in fact I think it probably opened doors.

    • April 29, 2012 at 6:40 pm

      Kate you’re probably right – I believe studies show that successful women are more likely to be those who follow the male rules (or conversely, eschew the more female ones). Rough and tumble seems par for the course with twins doesn’t it! Best friends one minute, kicking each other the next…!

  2. April 29, 2012 at 7:55 am

    Agree it’s so hard to negotiate this because it’s not just saying “hey, let’s have pink for boys and blue for girls too!” Boys are in a position of privilege (I say this and I only have boys) and this makes it much more complicated. At worst it’s just “why can’t girls be more like boys?”
    I let my boys wear dresses at home (if they feel like it, which isn’t often) but recently stopped my eldest from wearing one for school dressing-up days. I felt terrible but felt sure he’d get made fun of. If he’d been a girl I’d have felt fine about dressing him as Harry Potter etc. This isn’t me saying some things are harder for boys. If anything, I think scenarios such as this are based on the idea that girls are “improved” by being more boyish whilst boys are “weakened” and made less good by doing girly things.
    Anyhow, hark at me going on! Really interesting piece!

    • April 29, 2012 at 6:42 pm

      Oh no please go for it – you’re quite right – it’s absolutely about the value placed on attributes seen as male or female and how that plays out in parenting direction. If both were valued equally I don’t think I’d be as worried!

  3. April 29, 2012 at 9:22 am

    I am the parent of a boy, now 5 and at school, and though I’ve tried hard to stay aware of and avoid reinforcing stereotypes, recently I’ve been feeling like I’m losing the battle against the wider world. I wrote it about an example of this just yesterday “Can we stop colour-coding children yet?” http://rmc28.dreamwidth.org/479031.html

    • April 29, 2012 at 6:50 pm

      Rachel that’s a fabulous post! (Other readers please do take a look!)
      I like the idea of the boy box closing in. I feel the same about my daughter suddenly becoming interested in things that she wasn’t previously and developing her own gender awareness. So much of it comes from reacting to others’ (preschool, playmates etc) and learning to conform.

  4. April 29, 2012 at 10:55 am

    This subject has so many avenues to explore and you’ve inspired a blog post of my own which will probably prove nothing but be fun all the same.

      • April 29, 2012 at 6:53 pm

        What an ace idea – trying for a week to consciously subvert gender as a mother of boys – I love it!! It’s a daily battle with girls (follow @genderdiary on twitter – they tweet on it all the time and there are loads of people thinking similar things :) Let me know how you get on!!

  5. April 30, 2012 at 11:50 am

    I find the whole gender issue fascinating. I was always keen for my kids to figure out for themselves who they were – not have me or society tell them who they should be. Yet I have found that since my son started in the Nursery at school he suddenly came home with very clear ideas of what boys do/like and what girls do/like. I was shocked at how quickly he assimilated these views and now see similar views in his little sister. She’s clearly picked it up from him. Having said that, I don’t let that be the end of it. I encourage them to play together with anything – cars, planes, dolls, doll houses – and am especially encouraging of them to be physically active together. (Though I do draw the line at fighting…!) It seems to me that our jobs as parents should be to challenge our kids to think about the assumptions they make and to help them assess whether these assumptions really apply to them. But perhaps we sometimes need to do the same ourselves – how many of our own assumptions aren’t applicable to our own kids?

    • April 30, 2012 at 8:47 pm

      Good question. They will no doubt see a lot of things differently as they get older. I wonder whether having only girls there may actually be more scope than having the influence of a male sibling – less to directly compare to in the home…

  6. July 17, 2012 at 8:24 pm

    Excellent post. I try not to do it, but know that it’s not always possible. I have 3 year-old boy/girl twins. My daughter is encouraged to get as messy, climb as high, run as fast as my son. It isn’t fair, though. She gets to wear boys’ clothes and pretty dresses. It’s really hard to buy nice interesting clothes just for him, and we have never let him wear a dress out and about, and he doesn’t have any nighties. He isn’t allowed to grow his hair long, have bunches or plaits. We never reinforce gender stereotyping for either of them that they pick up at nursery. I know that we are encouraging Jonathan to be much happier with “feminine” activities than many other boys will be, but I’m still very conscious of the boxes that we are putting him into.
    He needs a haircut, though. Perhaps if I just put it off a few more weeks he can start to use hairclips and so on!

    • July 18, 2012 at 11:30 pm

      You’re right – it’s not always possible. Within a few months of starting preschool my eldest was suddenly much more interested in ‘girly’ things than ever before, from the girls who were more exposed to gender stereotyping. At the moment she’s happy so I guess there has to be a balance. Bottom line is I wouldn’t want to make her miserable for my views!

  7. July 18, 2012 at 3:31 am

    When I was still in elementary school my dearest dream and ambition was to jump out of airplanes for a living. My mother unfortunately told me that I couldn’t do it not because I was a girl because I was disabled. Several years later I decided I wanted to be a firefighter… Again the explanation that because of my wheelchair that wouldn’t work . When I was 10 years old I remember asking my mother for an electric blue mohawk, she would have obliged except for the fact that we lived with my grandmother the time and She would have had kittens about it when the next year almost. I think it blows down to something to the effect of somewhere along the line came the idea that girls and women specifically should be seen and not heard. Even in this day and time that is been so thoroughly ingrained that a lot of parents can’t see it. I love your blog and will most definitely return.

    • July 18, 2012 at 11:31 pm

      Thanks for the comment, and I hope you have found something that you have passion for now :)

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