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.