Friday, December 10, 2010

Teaching gender tolerance

The other day I had a talk with my daughter, who is seven. She goes through regular periods where she wants a sister so bad and tells me that we need to have a girl so she'll have someone to play barbies with. Usually when this happens, I tell her offhandedly that we're not having more kids and then I give her cousin a call (who also is without sisters) and arrange for her to come over because her best friend is more tomboy than a barbie girl--and she's a member. I don't give a shit that she's a member, but I'm beginning to suspect that perhaps her mother might. I dunno.

Anyway, this last time we had a talk. I sat her down and told her, again, that Mommy and Daddy could have fifty more kids and they could all turn out to be boys. "We just can't control it," I explained.

"Why not?"

Oh god. The timing was all wrong. While I have no problem (theoretically) having "the talk" with my daughter, her timing, whenever we get close like this, is always bad.

I mumbled something about mommies and daddies, not really sure if this was really the time. I'm waiting for the "where do babies come from" line, but maybe that's not how it always goes.

Eventually I went another route. "Sweetheart, if we had a girl it wouldn't likely be what you think it'd be like. Little sisters are extremely annoying. She'd be all up in your stuff. Wearing or eating your makeup. Messing with your toys. She'd be up all night as a baby. In time she'd want to hang out with you and your friends, and you won't want her anywhere near you. Eight years is a big difference. It won't pay off for another twenty years at least.

"Not only that," I added, "but she could end up just like I was and hate barbies."

"You hated barbies?"

"Yeah. It doesn't mean that barbies are bad, I just didn't like dolls. I wanted to play in the mud with the boys. So what if she ended up like me? You still wouldn't have anyone to play barbies with. We can't keep having kids until you get the sister you want. It might not ever happen."

She began to get the point. Still, I didn't like barbies? Wha?

I explained to her again that it didn't mean barbies were bad or good, it's a personality thing. I explained to her that some boys like dolls and barbies. That I know of one personally. She didn't quite know what to think of that, but I insisted on it. "It's not a boy thing or a girl thing, just a people thing. And it's okay."

Then I told her that, especially at her age, it's best to not count on a sister as something to solve her problems but to lean on her cousin or friends. This might prove difficult later (and has proven weird already) with regard to her cousin, being taught already about taking care of babies and cooking and church and specifically "pink" girl things like that, but y'know, whatever. For now, maybe for a while longer. Maybe forever. We'll have to see.

She got it. She's not happy about it, but she got it. And I understand her issues--I had a stepsister I hated (and despise still), another stepsister six years older than me who scared the shit out of me, and now a half-sis who I'm riding a thin line with. I always wanted someone I could talk with. I still do. I've my brother, but he lives 9 hours away now and we just were never close. I wish that wasn't the case, but it is. And that was my other point. Just because you're siblings doesn't mean jack shit.

It's just not all cut and dry.

Now I worry about my boys. The older one tends to hold rather black and white views on gender stereotypes. It might be due in part to us. I've noticed a few things here and there that we've only helped encourage, but it's his personality too. He's very much a boy (if you will). My heart sank a little when he said not to long ago "A boy marrying a boy?!" with a bit of shock and derision. The situation didn't merit a quick response and I just didn't know what to do. I didn't see it coming. I don't know where he's getting this crap from--my SILs house is very much gender-centric, but they don't spend a ton of time there. Maybe it's the social crap he hears on TV. Maybe it's the other boys at school--we're beginning to notice that he wants to play with the "cool" boys, and it scares me a little.

That said, if he's a "boy" like this, I shouldn't want to change him. If he likes stereotypical boy things, then that's fine. I need to remember that--it's part of who he is. I just don't want him to judge others for not being like him or feel the need to seem more "boyish" to fit the fucking mold and fit in. That won't happen in my house, not as much as we can help it.

But don't get me wrong, he is one of the most thoughtful and helpful and amazing kids I've ever been blessed to know. He'll help without being asked. He loves so much and gives the best hugs. He's a cuddler, and so smart. Unbelievably forgiving--to a fault, I worry, but forgiving. He responds best when you have a calm talk with him (most kids probably do, however). He understands. Huge heart. I have a lot to learn from him. As a kid who seems to have a lot of respect from his peers, I do think there's immense potential with him to be an influence. I want him, all of them really, to stand up for others when they're bullied. He's a big kid for his age, a good looking kid. A great kid. He could be an amazing force for good.

Then there's my youngest. He, like Jason, is incredibly social but much softer. I worry about him getting teased for being a little less than the stereotypical boy. He likes to play rough and all that crap, but he's a little less militant about it, if you will. He's in preschool right now, though, and gets along with EVERYONE. He won't let a kid come into the playground to begin school without saying hi. The other parents notice. He's just incredibly friendly. Got a bit of a temper, but so friendly. Just by personality alone, he too could be a force for good.

I worry about Abbie because, while she's such a great kid herself, she's a lot like me. I'm trying to figure out how to help her get past her confidence issues. She, too, could be a great force for good.

So I try to recognize "teaching moments" when it comes to these things, but I don't get to with Jason so much. Abbie and I have talks, and she knows. Joseph, I think, knows--but he's only four. Really, they're all young yet. I really don't care who they are, just as long as they're accepting of others and give out the respect they are deserving of themselves. I will admit, though, that I'm still learning. I come from a long history of this crap, and you know I like it when my man does his manly stuff and I like it when my boy holds a door open for us. I love being taken care of. I love girly things (i just don't have time, access, or knowledge to find the right ones) and all of that. So I struggle to not only realize that I need to learn how to do things, but to ensure my daughter learns it too. That she'll mow the lawn on occasion and my boys will mop the floor and clean the bathroom. She'll know how to change the oil in her car (something I've yet to learn) and they'll vacuum the house.

Deprogramming takes a while, especially when this shit is everywhere. Still, it was good for me to remember that I hardly fit the stereotype as a kid. As I grew older and especially in the church, I began to embrace more my feminine side--and I like it and want to learn more--but still. The church talks about self-reliance but does everything it can to prevent it in its women, if not by not teaching them basic things then by telling them their place is in the home, barefoot and pregnant.

This gender shit pisses me off more and more, like the other day when I went to find a microscope for my daughter. "Science" was listed under the "boys" section. I wanted to scream.

I realize I've some physical hurdles. I'm short and not as strong as Eric, for example. I don't expect to be able to do it all, but basic stuff I should be able to do. The problem is that during my stint in the church I never tried as hard. I did the whole "oh i can't do it" damsel in distress crap. I'm beginning to remember now that I'm stronger than I look, and I'm getting that competitive side of me back. It surprises Eric because he's not used to me having that confidence. He won't ask for my help, or think we need a third person, but I'm insistent now. I'm not a waif.

We all need to ask for help sometimes. Men can't do everything, either. We do complement each other, but it's not just a vagina vs. penis thing. It's personality. The longer Eric and I are out of the church the more we're seeing in each other a different personality emerge. It can be scary, but I think in the end we'll be stronger for it. He saw peeks of my real personality in the beginning anyway. I saw a little of his, but he's largely the same person. Just atheist.

I just want my kids to be strong. And I worry. I don't want to tell my boys to hold back on expressing less-than-masculine qualities just because some asshole might take them to task for it--but it's tempting. While it happens to girls, too, let's face it: it's rougher on the boys as it's more acceptable for a girl to be boyish. So I haven't figured out how I'll deal with that. I think, perhaps, confidence is the answer. But when you're a person still trying to build confidence in yourself, it's hard to know how to instill it in others.

But I'm trying. We'll get there.


  1. So much to say on a personal level about gender roles, programming as kids, etc. Not to mention the cost of therapy years later :-P But I won't preach here because I can tell you already feel the same way.

    Your kids are lucky for that <3

  2. First, I vote that you bring your daughter to the party and have her bring her Barbies, so she can play with a faux-little sister (my daughter) AND a boy who loves dolls (my son). That'll shape her up! :)

    Second, I'm not sure how old your first son is, but it's totally normal for them to start strongly identifying with their understanding of masculinity or femininity around age 5. He's almost certainly getting it from school. My son is almost 6 and pretty balanced -- he loves dolls and trucks equally, is very nurturing and also very active, and so forth. But he brings home the most outlandish ridiculous commentary on boys and girls and what they are like and what they can and cannot do. When he says that crap I am all over it. My daughter does the same thing now that she's in school. Lately it's all about pink. "Are you SURE that boys can like pink?" Yep, and some girls, like YO MAMA, wouldn't be caught dead in pink.

    It's really important to stop them right away when they get into that. I don't ever let it go. It gets entrenched so fast, and to their detriment, especially if they are, like my children, not exactly cut-and-dry as far as gender expression.

    (Sounds like our boys are practically identical. Isaiah is the same way, just the friendliest, most forgiving kid you'd ever meet. I'd love to get them together.)

    I look for teaching moments, too. Last week Willow said she wished she could have two moms and dads -- her real parents, and also her teachers. So I took that chance to explain that some people do have two moms or two dads, or both two moms and two dads if their parents are divorced, and some kids are raised by their grandparents, and some kids are adopted. I very much appreciate any opportunity to get my kids thinking outside the box.