Sunday, January 4, 2009

Sugar and spice and everything nice AND snakes and snails and puppy dog tails

One of my sociology professors in college was openly gay and talked at length about her personal life to help illustrate points she was trying to make in the classroom.

Because of that, much of what she had to say stuck with me.

I had her for Childhood Socialization -- part of the core curriculum for my Sociology degree -- and she often discussed her decision to raise her son from a previous marriage as gender-neutral as possible.

"If he wanted to wear a dress to school, I let him," she said.

I remember the stifled giggles that erupted around me, but all I could think of was how incredibly freeing it would be if everyone could wear what they wanted instead of being constricted by social norms.

She said a few of his kindergarten classmates started teasing him by calling him a girl, but she had explained to him what the repercussions might be, so he simply responded that he was not a girl because he had a penis.

When they continued their taunts, apparently he showed them as proof.

The story stuck with me all these years, but it seems particularly poignant now that I'm a parent.

For Christmas, Allison received a little pink purse from an extended family member that came with a lipstick rattle, a bracelet, a crinkly dollar bill and pastel car keys. As an added bonus, it sings when you open it.

The manufacturer, probably in an attempt to bill it as an educational toy, chose lyrics that include colors and numbers. But the songs frustrate me every time I hear them.

Here's a sampling:

"What's my favorite color?
Hmm, let me think.
Yesterday was purple
but today it's pink."

What? Little girls can't like red best? Or orange? Or (gasp!) blue?

But here's where I really start to struggle. What is the likelihood of Allison preferring another color when her entire world is drenched in pastels? Everything for little girls is pink and purple and sparkly and ruffly with ribbons and bows and hearts. You know, the stuff princess vomit is made of.

Even more frustrating? I love it. I love her in dresses. I love the flowers on her bedroom wall. I love putting clips in her hair when she's distracted enough that she won't immediately rip them out.

But with my background in understanding how socialization shapes behavioral development, I constantly struggle with it.

Then I heard these lyrics:

"Look into the mirror,
put my lipstick on,
grab my purse and go,
I won't be gone too long."

Gah! What lesson is this teaching? Make sure to check how you look before you walk out of the house?

It took me years, YEARS, to break this neurosis. I used to sleep in my bra and makeup in junior high because I was afraid my house would catch on fire and I'd be caught out on the street not looking my very best. I mean, what could be worse than trying to survive a potentially life-threatening situation? NOT HAVING MASCARA ON WHILE YOU FLED.

I can do my best to buy Allison sleepers from the boy clothing section with animal prints and pass over the pastel blocks in favor of the primary colored ones. I can even get her a tool set to put beside her play kitchen, but I know I'll never be able to be as aware as I want to be.

I've realized that even the words I use while I'm talking to her are sometimes gender-specific. When I greet her for the day, "How's my pretty lady doing this morning?" flows out without hesitation. If we had a boy, I'd be using completely different adjectives to describe him.

Sure, I know I could go crazy overanalyzing everything. And I'm certainly not going to give up dresses or bows.

But I am going to make sure she has a football in addition to a doll house.

And, more importantly, grows up watching her mother volunteer to use a chainsaw.


Randall @ Happy For This Moment said...

Certainly nothing wrong with a tomboy :) I had a pink Barbie car and a dollhouse as well as Matchbox cars, cowboy boots and a go kart!

Jaclyn said...

Isn't it HARD to not fall into using those stereotypes?!?! For example, I try my hardest to tell Katelyn how sweet and smart and funny she is, and not just always talk abotu how beautiful she is. And I, too, love putting her in dresses, finding those adorable dress shoes and look forward to being able to "fix" her hair.
I just hope we succeed in teaching them that they're more than just pretty faces!!

Anonymous said...

That is all you can do. I firmly believe girls can like sports and tools and STILL like dolls.

In addition to my dollhouse which I loved I also couldn't get enough of my Matchbox cars and building blocks. FYI - my building blocks were red, blue, black and white not pastels like they make now!

Good Luck. It certainly sounds like you are headed in the right direction.

C said...

I grew up surrounded by girly things, and while my parents mangaged to mix in a few matchbox cars and lots of legos (one of my favorites) most of it was still definitively girly. But I'm proof that even surrounded by frill girls can grow up to be tomboys, I'm about as tomboyish as they come without totally abandoning dresses and the occasional swipe of mascara.

Anonymous said...

I'm a sociology major and I graduate in the spring. We've talked a lot about societal norms and gender constructions simply because it has come to the forefront of most sociological and psychological studies being done today. The truth is, you don't need to worry so much about what you are introducing to Alli. Many researchers suggest taking your child to the toy store and allowing them to pick out the toys (regardless of the gender they may have been made for) they are most interested in.
Really, what it comes down to in the end however, is that regardless of the effort you or anyone else may place on Alli to be a "girlie" girl or a tomboy, she will ultimately chose who she wants to be. Sure, she is highly in tune to the influences being introduced to her at this young age, but as she grows up and becomes friends with both boys and girls, her tastes will change and she will decide what she wants. Your job is to make sure she understands that regardless of gender, eye color, hair texture, or body shape and size, she is a wonderful, worthwhile person who deserves to be happy with who she is, whoever that may be.
And something tells me that you will do a great job of that. Leave everything else up to fate/personal choice. She'll figure it out. We all do eventually.

Chelsea said...

Thats how my mom raised me, and now I'm a sports writer who loves the color pink and loves to watch baseball games and Project Runway. Good for you!

By the way, do you have 2 degrees? Because I thought you had a journalism degree!

Leslie said...

Hmmm... I think you'll do a great job no matter what. As long as she knows she has great parents that will love her no matter what.

My mother dressed me in boys clothes when I was an infant sometimes. I grew up playing with my brother and his friends all the time and always feeling more comfortable with the guys than the girls. I still hardly have any female friends. But I also love being a girl and I LOVE makeup. And shoes. And purses. Mmm... lipgloss...

NatalieDeltaGam said...

that's why mary margaret's room is blue and brown and that her easter DRESS is blue too--haha!!

i know what you mean about the stereotypes...i call m.m. "little miss" everyday--it's hard to keep yourself from doing it.

i, myself, wanted to be laura ingalls wilder so bad when i was a child (8 to say, oh, 12 years old) that when out of school i wore a dress and sewed and cooked *every day*. so, of course our child will be a tomboy!

Ray said...

Kelly, I love you! Great entry.

I don't have children but it's something that I think about. Specifically toys of course. You go to the girls section of a toy store and all you really see is: different kinds of dolls, dress-up items and kitchen stuff. It's kind of like preparing little girls for the job of a housewife. Learning how to take care of a doll, so she'll learn how to be a mother. The kitchen set so she'll know how to cook for her husband. The dress-up preparing her for adulthood where women are supposed to wear heels (not all of them of course but you get where I'm going) and look glamorous all the time.

I think children should just be children. Sure girl toys are cute and I do love em', but it's a bit sexist as well. I don't see anything wrong with a little girl having a train set along with her collection of Barbie dolls. And I'm glad you want that tool set for Alli along with her play kitchen.

There should be no boundaries whatsoever. And in a way saying that, "Pink is for girls and blue is for boys" and "Girls should only play with dolls" is telling your child that they can only do so much. Or that they can only, "become" so much. They same thing goes for jobs for certain genders, but I won't get into that. And maybe I'm being overly-dramatic but it's something that I don't take lightly.

Boy or girl, especially "girl" the world should truly be her oyster in more ways than one. I'm glad that having Allison makes you think of these things. Though it's kind of hard not too when you're in charge of this new life and when you want the best for her.

About the clothing issue with colors and having everything girly: I think everyone is guilty of buying everything pink for a girl and having one too many frills and bows. The thing is to have a balance where she's not always so girly all the time, and I think you fit the balance quite well when dressing Alli (with the photos that I've seen anyhow).

I know that Alli will be a well rounded girl with the right amount of, "Sugar & Spice!" =D Especially with great parents like you and Jerry raising her.

Take, care.

Lioncloud said...

Indeed, nothing wrong with being a tomboy!

However, the professor allowing her son to wear a dress to school disturbs me. Would she let the child go to school wearing a "Kick Me" sign? It's one thing to explain gender bias to a child and to let him/her explore various choices at home, but the child also needs the protection of knowing what is commonly done. Not "normal," but "common". I don't see it as essentially different from the child knowing that one doesn't wear pajamas to church or to a formal dinner.

Anonymous said...

I don't think its was you surround her with necessarily, but letting her become what she wants to be. There is nothing worse than getting judged by a parent.

Sheryl said...

I think growing up in Steelers' country is going to guarantee the football thing. As for favorite colors, I'm amazed how many little girls who aren't conditioned into likin pastels go for the pinks and purples by choice. Those favorite colors often change as they get older.

There is truth in that children learn what they live with, but they also make their own choices and have their own preferences at very early ages. They also have a way of expressing their opinions. They balance it out. You've been a great mom for her first year; there's no reason to expect that to change during the ensuing years.

Miss Outlier said...

I was always treated as a girl, with pink dresses and dance classes and all the trimmings. But I was also encouraged to do whatever I wanted - which happened to be building things. I am currently a mechanical engineer who spends her days in a machine shop. I have my own tool rack in my dorm room.

So, I would say feel free to call the precious one a "pretty lady" every morning without fear - one Christmas she may still ask for a set of wrenches! And her Mama sets a great example with the chainsaw.

Anonymous said...

I think maybe you're reading too much into it. I agree with the other people who said it's probably more important to just let her pick out what she likes. If she turns out girly, cool. If not, that's cool too. Her personality will develop however it's meant to be. :)

The Plainsman said...

I waited a day to comment. I'm going to respectfuly disagree a bit here and say that for me, there is something a bit off with your former college professor trying to raise her son as gender-neutral as possible. I think that she confuses the fact of gender with allowing a child to choose what they feel comfortable with doing or playing with. Because a girl may choose what are or have been seen by society as male pursuits (some mentioned here as Matchbox cars, primary colors or physical competition with the guys) does not make her any less of a woman, any more than if a boy wanting to learn to cook or sew makes him any less of a man. Gender is a fact of birth. Most woman will give birth and go through what you so eloquently described here over the past few years while we men will sit in wonder of it all. But that does not mean woman should be soley defined by, and confined to that role by social norms. Being a parent though, your professor and not the teacher, not the other kids, had the responsibility of explaining to her son the impact of wearing a dress to school before ever letting him out of the house in one. Her inaction on the issue put him in a defensive mode he may have not wanted to be in, if he had been aware of the consequenses beforehand. That is the role of a parent. Kids are not miniature adults and do not have any of the life experiences and skills they will have at age 16, 18 or 25. That being said, you have the complete freedom to make any inapproprite toy of Allisons' dissappear or be replaced by a more appropriate one. She does not have to listen to that song. Why should your child be molded by someone's elses standards, even if well intended? (Yes, I think the purse is hideous, but have no qualms about anyone teaching their child, female or male, that good grooming is a form of self respect and respect for others.) Sorry this was so long. I will quit the rant now.

aj said...


seriously proud of you.

you should probably get some sort of mom-awareness medal, and i'm not even kidding.

if i knew where to get one, i'd mail it to you.

on behalf of all girls like myself who were forced into dresses, handed countless barbie's, and told pink and purple were the acceptable color choices, i thank you.

socialization plays a HUGE role in our gender preferences, all over the world. i think allison will appreciate the chance to just be herself, and not a carbon-copy of every other girl.

you're a good mom. and you have a lucky little girl.

Marcy said...

I figure I'll expose my son to everything I can, and try to leave it to him to decide what he likes best. I think a lot of our gender differentiation is socialized, but a lot of it seems like it has to be innate, too. My 11 month old has all sorts of different types of toys, most of them totally gender-neutral, but one of the things that makes his eyes light up the most are CARS.

Taylor said...

I grew up in dresses, loved the spice girls, played with barbies and ended up playing ice hockey. I also had two brothers, grew up in an ice rink, and played with all of my brothers toys as well as my own. One year my mom saved my christmas list and showed it to people because it was one that a boy would have written.

Jennifer said...

I'm not sure what my mother did, but I know that I grew up hating dolls, pink, babies, frills, bows, dresses, and the like. I was never the princess waiting to be rescued in my imaginary games... I was too busy fighting the dragons and rescuing the prince. I was competitive and aggressive in sports and class. And it came back to bite me later, to be honest, with the way I was treated by classmates, colleagues, and anyone else, really. I was so clueless about how things actually worked. I had to learn how to be "feminine" all on my own- and I love it! Ideally, it shouldn't matter. But it does, so I work with that. So, yes, I think that you're right: there does, indeed, need to be a balance. We do still live in a world where girls should know how to use make-up and razors and such, so long as they realize that they CHOOSE them rather than NEED them, and that their worth doesn't lie in their value as a sex object.

I can't wait to have a girl. For now, though, I'm enjoying raising my son. :)

kate said...

Hi Kelly, I think it is so great that you are aware of this stuff! And it makes Allison so lucky. I just wanted to add my two cents because it's slightly different (although in line with) what everyone else has said, and that is this: my mom has always given me the most compliments about when she thought I was cute, or did my eye makeup well, or had a nice sweater on, or whatever. That stuff is affirming and made me feel confident - and having an ally through the horrible competitiveness of middle school/high school especially helped. But I've realized it also made me worry too much about appearances. I think compliments about a girl's smarts, her personality, her sports ability, her accomplishments in school or extracurriculars are way more important (although not to the exclusion of a good mom's affirming messages that 'I think your body is beautiful how it is and you should love it too' messages). Might help contradict the messages she'll get from everywhere else that girls are supposed to be pretty and sweet and care about their lipstick! :) Anyway, just some ideas from a person who's been thinking about this a lot lately.