Say the phrase “gender stereotyping” in a roomful of parents, and inevitably someone(s) will “prove” that gender is wired in “because when Mary was a year old, we put a doll and a truck equidistant from her, and she went for the doll!” or “Do you know what Johnny did with his sister’s Barbie? Scooped her up with his bulldozer and buried her in the sandbox — after studiously dismembering her!”
Ah, I think. So we’re off the hook, are we? Mary chose the doll, so that means we can just relax, kick back, and keep right on reinforcing gender stereotypes, guilt-free. Well, no. Sorry to have to break it to all you parents, but the old doll / truck anecdote hardly locks up the nature-nurture debate. In short: לא עליך המלאכה לגמור, ולא אתה בן חורין ליבטל ממנה. Or for the matter under discussion: While the task of eliminating gender stereotyping is too large for an individual, we as parents can't merely offer our kids both dolls and trucks and claim we've done out part.
I myself grew up stereotypically female, right down to the ruffled underwear that I insisted on wearing ruffles-in-front so’s I could see ‘em, for gosh sake! I was offered neither trucks nor weapons, and was happy being a girl. The one non-conventional thing about my family was that my mother worked full time, and when I was six (1966) she began working toward a Master’s degree. It was a difference I caught onto early, and it must have had some impact on me.
But it’s no longer unusual for moms to work, you say. Correct. So now we have to be even more conscientious about not falling into the gender stereotype trap. I’d like to share some strategies I used to raise my daughters’ consciousnesses regarding gender:
· Feel free to “edit” stories read aloud. Many children’s book characters are animals, and their default gender is male. Question it: There’s not a shred of a reason why all of the characters in The Three Little Pigs cannot be female, nothing to stop us from reading “she” in place of “he”: There’s no Read-aloud Gestapo monitoring us. And no, my daughters didn’t accept my editing unquestioningly: Indeed, they protested, which gave me the perfect opportunity to ask them: Why can’t the pigs be female? Why can’t the wolf be female*? Ditto for Eric Carle’s spider (hurray for Charlotte and her Web!). I actually saw an illustration of a kangaroo, complete with pouch containing a joey, referred to as “he”!
· Continue to question. While substituting at a preschool, I told the teacher of my discomfort with a Chanuka song that has “Mother cooking the latkes and Father blessing the candles”. Why not change it up? I asked her. She replied that children “don’t accept things outside the norm”. Oh, I said. You mean they can accept that a human being can fly or become invisible (e.g., all the stuff they see on TV), but they can’t accept a dad who cooks? Not buying that one. And you know what? Suppose the teacher had switched them, and the kids protested. A perfect springboard for a discussion of gender roles. No, the four-year-olds will not leave school that day spouting de Beauvoir and McKinnon, but so what? Just as important is their having been exposed to the concept of it being OK to question assumptions, instead of blindly accepting what is. Isn’t that the aim of education?
· My two older daughters insisted on subscriptions to a rather low-quality teen magazine called Rosh Echad. While each issue did contain “policitally correct” articles on eating disorders and alcohol abuse, these were spaced among ads featuring emaciated models and teens drinking out of Heineken mugs. I made sure to point out these inconsistencies to them, and eventually, they were pointing them out to me. Now they point them out to me in Haaretz and other publications that we all read.
The point is that while modeling desired behavior is certainly important, it’s not enough if we want kids to absorb our values. We’ve got to talk to our kids: This doesn’t mean lecturing or sermonizing; it means questioning assumptions and encouraging them to do so (“Do you know any women who look like that? Do you suppose that’s her actual shape, or is she photoshopped?). It doesn’t mean being rigid (“No, you may not give out lip gloss as party favors”); it means offering alternatives (“Not all your friends might appreciate lip gloss. Might these cute erasers please everyone?”). After a while, it becomes a reflex; you begin to see opportunities to raise your kids’ consciousnesses all over the place, and at a certain point the kids themselves proudly take over; make sure to praise them when they notice gender stereotypes on their own.
So yes, most girls like Barbies, want to pierce their ears, go through a dresses-only stage, and get excited about wearing makeup. I did, and I watched my daughters move through those stages; but instead of passively pointing to them as “proof” that gender is wired in, I didn’t make a big deal over it, and just continued “playing the gender-neutral tape”. The key is not to give up: Nail polish and consciousness-raising can — and should — coexist. The issue doesn’t begin and end with dolls and trucks.
* I taught my kids the words “female” and “male” early on. For some reason, it bugs me to hear “girl dog” and “boy cat”. Same way it bugs me when I hear parents describe unfamiliar foods to their kids as “like spaghetti” or “like pizza”. Riiiiight. That’ll expand their vocabularies and broaden their minds…