Something I have been passionate about in my parenting from the very beginning was what’s called Peaceful Parenting, which to me has always included creating a safe space for my children to express themselves, regardless of sex. My goal has always been for them to really get to know who they are, without anyone telling them what they can and can’t do, and who they can and can’t be based on what’s between their legs (to be blunt).
I consider myself a feminist, someone who is equally as concerned for the welfare and equal treatment of women as I am of men (despite the common misinformed definition of the word). To me, this means I’m equally as concerned for the equal treatment of my daughter as well as my son when it comes to their health, emotional development, and the like.
One frustrating incident that we continuously run into with my children is the overuse of gender when discussing children.
“Aren’t you a pretty girl?”
“What a big boy!”
Another set of issues we constantly face is the overuse of male characters in books, stereotypical appearances of characters, and lack of racial diversity. Not only did most of our books lack female leads, but those that did often would portray children in typical stereotypical fashion in terms of looks and interests. I made the decision to get up close and personal with my children’s reading material and make my choices for their bookshelf more than passive. I make a serious effort to make sure our shelves always include a variety of characters who are male and female leads, are racially and culturally diverse, and have diverse nuclear families.
That aside, my children’s father and I come from cultures where gender stereotypes were and still are a huge issue. I was so excited to pass on aspects of my culture, including my favorite stories from my childhood, to my children. That is, until I realized that I did in fact not want to pass them down at all for reasons mentioned above. I now have to kindly reject gifts from family members that bring books from said countries in an effort to expose our children to their family culture, which is both sad for me and likely for the family members involved. To them, it likely seems as a rejection of our family history and culture; for me, it’s a rejection of a history of sexism that I do not want to pass on to future generations of my family.
I haven’t shown my kids Disney. Gasp, I know. We don’t watch a lot of tv, and when my part Waldorf, part Montessori, part modern kid asks to watch something, it’s usually something like Little Bear, Stella and Sam, or Tumble Leaf. Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks have started coming out with movies like Brave, Tangled, and others that portray women in a lead position instead of helpless, ‘save me’ types that rely on men to walk across the room. There is some okay material, and will likely be more in the years to come as feminism is becoming more seriously regarded. We will get there, someday, but my personal stance is that we (my family) are not there yet. One of the reasons is that cartoons and fairy tales often either focus on romantic relationships, (a concept foreign to children but often sold and portrayed to girls as something they are constantly and relentlessly focused on) or on being the focus on a betrothal agreement in one way or another. Whose 3 year old is interested in finding a lifelong mate? No? Mine neither. She’s much more interested in scuba diving, dragons, and how things work. If she were interested in pink ponies, I’d be okay with that too, because I would rest assured that it was an authentic interest versus something she regurgitated from watching too many hours of Frozen on repeat (which she has never seen). I have some other reasons for saving some of these for later, however, I’ll save that for another blog post.
In stories, podcasts, and just generally, items and animals are often personified as male. “He.” This is problematic on many levels, as children’s brains start categorizing early and creating lifelong connections and biases that are more difficult to counter or change later on. I switch to ‘she’ regularly, in books and in stories, to try to create some sort of balance between what is out there and what my children internalize. Occasionally I’ll read a character as a ‘he’, but majority of the time I switch to ‘she’ to make up for the disparity. Another way we combat this is by referring to professions with neutral titles. Mailman becomes mailperson, milkman becomes milk delivery person, firefighter, etc. Sometimes when the disparity between what we see and what is real is too great, I’ll mention ‘Wow all of these police officers are male. Women can be police officers too!” That’s likely the only time I am the one to point out gender. Am I worried that my son (2yo) won’t get enough male leads in his life? Not in the least. Society will come in and ‘fix’ that once he either starts school or when he makes friends, but until then he gets a good balance of male and female leads, and has a strong willed, well balanced sister and mother.
Sexism is something I battle for my children on a regular basis, almost everywhere we go. It has been incredibly surprising to realize how much focus there is on attributing things either left or right; boy or girl. My son gets referred to as a girl 100% of the time, simply because he loves his hair in a bun or pony tail and chose pink snow boots this winter, and often wears purple, his favorite color. He sometimes chooses to wear his sister’s dresses or a butterfly clip in his growing hair. In fact, I’ve even noticed that even when my son is dressed in very stereotypical boys clothing, he is still referred to as a girl simply because he likes a high pony tail in his hair. Someone once said to me “It’s because he’s beautiful!” But in reality I think that we put pants on our daughters daily but still have a difficult time accepting long hair or sensitivity of any kind in boys and men. It confuses my daughter to hear “Would your sister like a sticker too?” It doesn’t confuse her because she’s aware that her brother is a ‘boy’, but simply because we refer to him as her brother. As far as my daughter, she was referred to as a boy last fall when she chose a dragon for a Halloween costume, but is hardly mistaken for a boy otherwise. “Hey there little man!” Another favorite..
I often wonder what sort of issues we will face in the future, when it comes to sex. When my children want to pick their own clothes at a store, how will I explain separate ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ sections? If I want to enroll them in gymnastics class, how will I explain the divide between the ‘boys’ class and the ‘girls’ class? What about when their teachers feel the need to incessantly call them ‘boys and girls’, as if it meant anything at all?; When/if their classmates start segregating into girls and boys groups? We’ve already come face to face with this issue a few times, once when I had to ask a ballet teacher ahead of the game if they would allow my son to wear a tutu, in the case that he wanted one, to make sure no one makes a fuss about it in class if it does occur. I realize I won’t be able to protect them from gender bias and sexism forever, but I’d like to allow them to establish a stable base before other people come in with their flaming opinions.
Sometimes I feel a bit lonely in my parenting attempts because often I’m told that I’m overthinking it; I struggle to find others who have an equal focus on protecting this sort of equality in and out of their home. I’ve even received some criticism from family members on ‘my choices’ on my children’s’ appearance, and have had to remind some relatives to congratulate my son equally on his choice of a ‘pretty dress’ as they do my daughter so that he does not feel any unequal treatment in his choices. I see my daughter develop the right sort of strength and resilience in terms of who she is, and I may now worry a bit more for my son, because the stigma against boys being soft and sensitive is much greater and is approached with much more ferocity than I now see on the other end of the spectrum. My daughter gets encouragement for wanting to be strong and brave and curious (much different approach than lets say, 100 years ago), and gets no looks from anyone when she chooses pink of purple. But I am concerned how society will approach my sensitive, playful son, who loves trucks, cats, and hair clips equally. I usually don’t correct people when they call him a girl, or a she, but when I have I have gotten questionable looks.
I’m not sure how often feminism or gender equality are discussed in the peaceful parenting community today, but I seldom see diversity in that department in both Waldorf and Montessori communities, where personal choice is generally regarded as an important principle. I would love to open up more discussion in regards to how we can better support our children in this way and prepare them for a lifetime of freedom of choice and leadership when it comes to both themselves, and their peers.
I’m happy that we have made the decision to move (in a few years) to a country that amongst its many perks, regards gender equality very seriously. It is, in fact, the country with one of the highest rates of gender equality in the world. That makes me feel like my children will have a much different experience growing up than I did, and likely you did as well. After all, the main goal for all parents is happy, safe, and emotionally secure children. Approaching sexism and gender stereotypes (amongst other issues) head on from an early age makes this dream more possible.