As many of you know, I work as a nanny for the best 2-year-old ever (no offense to your 2-year-old, of course, but you know what I mean). The other day, her mother and I sat down to sort through her old baby clothes to see which ones would be appropriate for her impending little brother, and which should be given away.
I’ll bet you can see where this is going.
As we sorted the clothes, we got more and more frustrated at how obviously gendered they were, and at how strictly (we perceived) that society would police the way that the impending baby would be dressed.
Navy raincoat with nautical anchors? Cut in an a-line, so much too girly.
Navy t-shirt featuring a polar bear in a tie and a polar bear with a bow on its head? Well, if it weren’t for the one with the bow on its head, it would have been fine (even though it had obviously been fine for a girl to wear a shirt with a tie-wearing polar bear).
The tipping point for me, however, was the navy t-shirt with a bold red heart on the front (as you can see, the toddler wears a lot of navy). I sadly replied, “boys don’t get love” as we put it in the give-away pile.
That was to become my refrain as the give-away pile grew and grew and the “keep” pile was limited to stretchy jeans (“he’ll be a hipster!”) and a few plain-colored t-shirts and hoodies.
I mentioned in my post about how patriarchy hurts everybody that young boys seem even more constrained by gender roles than young girls do; nowhere does that seem more evident than in the world of children’s clothing.
The toddler’s parents and I are very invested in avoiding imposing gender stereotypes on her. As you can tell from above, her clothes are rarely overly feminine (or masculine, for that matter), but are chosen for comfort and versatility. While we will squeal to each other about how adorable and sweet she is, we make sure to praise her for her bravery, her cleverness, and her helpfulness. In the past week or so, the two things she has said most often about herself are “I strong!” and “I happy!”
She is a kid with varied interests. She will spend the same amount of time making me re-diaper her doll (“Baby Stella clean nappy!”) as she will making me hold her up to see over a fence to a construction site (“Truck noise! Truck dig!”). She is as excited to see a baby in a buggy (“Baby cute! Baby sweet!”) as she is to hear a siren or an airplane (“Fire engine! Ambulance! Airplane!” Ok, now I’m really just showing off her impressive vocabulary. Did I mention she’s not even two yet?).
For now, she seems unaware of gender roles, and is a super-happy, healthy kid. But I’m worried about what the future holds.
I’ve always been very interested in the ways we socialize kids into gender roles; ever since I read “X: A Fabulous Child’s Story” in my Psychology of Women (or was it Psychology of Gender?) class in undergrad, I’ve been fascinated with the bazillions of small ways children learn that boys are tough and girls are polite, that boys are loud while girls are gentle.
In fact, one of the (many many many) reasons I don’t want kids of my own is that I can see myself being overly frustrated with the gender role thing. Because for every parent trying to teach their son to be gentle and compassionate, there is a grandparent telling him to “toughen up”. For every parent teaching their daughter to be assertive and confident, there is a stranger on the street cooing over the “sweet little princess”. And I can imagine that as a parent it’s very hard to negotiate which battles are worth fighting. (I can imagine it would be even harder, as a parent, to explain to family and friends that just because your child has a vagina, she might not necessarily identify as a girl, so you’re trying not to impose gender OR gender roles onto her).
For instance, recently in North Carolina a boy was told by his school that he could not use his My Little Pony backpack. The school said that the backpack caused a disruption, but what they really meant was: “kids are bullying him and we don’t want to deal with it”.
When I first read about this case, I remember thinking about the mother and what a difficult position she must have been in. She wholeheartedly encouraged her son to be himself, even though by doing so she knew that he might be targeted for bullying. On the other hand, she then used the opportunity to call out schools and our culture for focusing on what makes someone a “target” for bullying instead of dealing with the issue of bullies themselves. So her son learned a valuable lesson about standing up for yourself and about bullying, but it was getting bullied that put those lessons in motion.
As the little girls I nanny gets older, she’s going to be exposed to more and more gender stereotypes. She’ll see unnecessarily gendered products in stores, she’ll encounter gender role stereotypes in the media she consumes, and she’ll be presented with fewer options for the type of clothing she wears.
There’s a lot to think about when it comes to gender and kids, and even though I don’t have kids of my own, I find myself discussing these issues with the toddler’s parents. What will happen if she gets indoctrinated into princess culture? Will we have to confront our own potential prejudices against pink? Will we find ourselves defending that culture in the face of a non-girly girl?
In the meantime, I will continue to praise her for taking turns, for her attempts to write the letter A, and for cooperating when it’s time to change her diaper. But I’m definitely paying attention, and it will be really interesting to see what happens when her little brother arrives!