02 May 2006

Blog Book Tour: It's a Girl

This is my third go-around on Andi Buchanan's blog book tour: first for It's a Boy: Women Writers on Raising Sons, then for Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined, and now, for It's a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters. I'm thrilled, because I believe Andi's books are a central part of the growing conversation (in print and online) about the realities of middle-class, American motherhood.

I was fortunate to attend a Mother Talk here in Portland in which four of the contributors to It's a Girl engaged in lively conversation with a fascinating group of 30 or so women. The evening felt much like reading this book did -- like I was among friends, even though I knew few of the people there.

It's a Girl takes on the topics of gender identity, the archetypal pull of those ubiquitous Disney Princesses, the blessing and curse of beauty, the complicated mother-daughter bond, and so much more. Each essay is exquisite in its own way, a glimpse at the mobius strip of daughters mothering daughters.

At first I had to chuckle, because, as expected, a few authors were bewildered by their daughters' strong affinities for the pink, sparkly accessories of traditional girl-dom. And yet, in It's a Boy, presumably similar moms had similar worries about their sons -- except that they were too "boyish." It seems that the nature/nurture gender puzzle inherent in parenting trips quite a few of us up, myself included. I recall being initially offended when people said my son was "all boy." Now, he runs around playing superhero with imaginary super-power laser blasters, while my toddler daughter admires my earrings and pats me gently on the hand when I'm frustrated about something. While I'll never pigeonhole them as "all boy" or "all girl," like it or not, my kids were born with certain classic gender leanings. I enjoyed reading about how other mothers wrestled with similar observations.

I can say, honestly, that all the essays in the book are incredible, and I could fawn about each one. But the ones which grabbed me were about beauty and body image. I've never seen such honest treatment about the treacherous waters we must face as we usher our little girls into a body-obsessed world. In "On Being Barbie," Jenny Block talks about the paradox of raising her daughter to appreciate her inner beauty while Jenny herself has had three cosmetic surgeries. In "Baby Fat," Catherine Newman (is there anything that woman can't write??) gorgeously describes her daughter's chubby-liciousness while noting her own ambivalence about her less-than-sightly postpartum "curves."

There's so much more I could say, but I'll just leave it to you to pick up a copy for yourself or (and!) a friend. Well worth it, I promise.

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I'm a little confused about why being "all boy" or "all girl" is a bad thing. Why were you offended when people said your son was "all boy"? Why is it that your kids "certain classic gender leanings" are a "like it or not" thing, as if it's a terrible disease that we just have to find a way to deal with?

I have 4 kids, 3 of whom are old enough now to display their emergent personalities (the other is still a baby). My oldest son and my two daughters are "all boy" and "all girl(s)" with the attendant fascination with dinosaurs, superheroes, sports, & guns (the boy) and princesses, painted fingernails, dress-up, and dolls (the girls). And this is a good thing. But my son is also an amazingly caring and affectionate big brother, and my girls love to play baseball and soccer and superheroes as much as my son does.

Should we try to make our boys less boyish and our girls less girly? Are we hoping for a bland gender-neutral society that removes all the things that make women distinctively female and men distinctively male?

Excellent questions, Brian! No, I don't think we should try to "nurture" the boyishness or girlishness out of our kids. Far from it -- I hope parents let their kids explore their gender-based preferences as they see fit, and not worry about it much either way. If a girl or a boy wants to wear a tutu or swing a light saber, so be it.

I pointed out my offense about "all boy" early on for two reasons: 1) to shine a light on how inexperienced I was as a mom in the beginning, fully immersed in the belief that gender roles were strictly "nurture" territory, and 2) because I felt like calling him "all boy" pigeonholed him and left no room for his qualities that weren't traditionally boyish. I now know neither of these things were true.

Hey, everybody! Chime in on this one! Brian has started a fascinating discussion.

I think my own ambivalence about tagging my son as "all boy" is as much about the consumer goods that will be shoved at him because he is a boy (regardless of what he is drawn to), and thus what he will grow up thinking is "manly", as it is about any hesitation about masculinity itself.

That is, I grew up in a family (as did my husband) where guns, motor sports, etc. were not part of "manhood," but I think those themes are more pervasive in our culture today than they were when I was a child.

I am irritated that at 24 months, our clothing choices for him at most less-expensive stores have four themes: trucks/race cars, sports, dinosaurs or tools. Dinosaurs and sports are fine, but why are they only "manly?" Why is science a boy thing (at least in clothing)? Or physical activity? Or tools? [I was on the porch last night installing the fixture while my husband held it up, dangit!] Why is non-thematic clothing so much more expensive?

And then there is my desire to raise my son to be whatever and whoever he truly is, without forcing a gender identity on him by dint of the toys and clothing aimed at him. I keep thinking of "Free to be you and me" where William wants a doll. Progressive as that movie was, there's no implication that William will grow up to be gay "just because" he wants a doll. The message is that it's ok for boys to care for babies. Great lesson! But why is the box for shopping cart toy at the store still depicting a girl? And why does it say "do the shopping just like mommy!" on the box? Have we progressed so little?

And what if my son is gay? I don't want to force "manly" things on him that might cause him to be conflicted about it. Not his conflict is my provenance or responsibility - but it's part of my protective instinct to want to make finding out who he is as easy as possible.

He's a boy. I recognize that. And he's a terrible flirt with girls and women - who knows why yet. But please let me pretend he'll be the kind of boy with no interest in violence, guns or NASCAR at least until he proves me wrong.

I'm always trying to temper my boys' tendency toward violent play with discussions about peaceful negotiation. I think that all I do is ruin their fun. But, I want them to know that every dead soldier (or civilian!) has a grieving family. I want them and the superheros/knights/power rangers that they embody have some responsibility to at least understand that real violence isn't fun. How to do this? I'm not sure, but I feel that my responsibility as the parent of boys is to make them the best men I can, and to me, that includes teaching non-violence.

This latest flurry of parenting literature like It's a Girl and Mommy Wars etc... made me wonder why we don't have a collection by dads. As dads play bigger roles at home, such a book would be interesting, marketable, and likely break new ground.

Hi Betsy. You say, "But please let me pretend he'll be the kind of boy with no interest in violence, guns or NASCAR at least until he proves me wrong." And I think that strikes at what is, at least for me, the root of the issue. My impression of your statement is that it comes very close to saying, "But please let my boy be more like a girl." As if masculinity is something to be ashamed of.

Masculinity is good. Femininity is good. It's part of how God made us. It needs to be channelled appropriately (Jill, your comment about helping them understand the context for and consequences of violence was outstanding).

And Betsy, I'm not sure if guns and cars are a bigger part of masculine culture today than before - looking back on my childhood (The Dukes of Hazzard, Knight Rider, Yosemite Sam, cap guns and play six-shooters) I'd say it was at least as prominent then as now (and for me, "then" was the 1970s).

But one thing that is most definitely more prevalent in our culture today is an attack on masculinity. Watch any night of sitcoms and TV commercials and count the number of male idiots and the number of female idiots - and the ration is at least 20-to-1. Probably closer to 50-to-1. And I don't want my sons (or daughters, for that matter) to grow up expecting that men are irresponsible loutish idiots. And I think wishing away our sons' masculinity contributes to exactly that sort of culture.

Then the problem is fighting society's definition of masculinity, which seems to equate it with violent behavior. When my first son started preschool I began to see rough play with cars (can we drive w/o crashes?) attacking dinos and fighting superheros. I'm trying to be ok that my boys have innately different interests than I did, but I feel like outside influences are stronger than mine. Before preschool my son was more likely to have the Bob the Builder vehicles (with faces) have conversations. Now they crash. Gun play is ok at everyone's home but his. Not gun play is never ok. He's creative about sneaking it (his superheroes are only holding light sabers to see in the dark to take the bad guys to jail) but he still plays that way. Is that nature or nurture? Maybe I just need to step away and let it go. It might fall into the "my husband played that way and he turned out ok" category.
Brian, what do you do about the violence? How do you let superheros fight and not let kids hurt each other?

I just bought Andrea Buchanan's book. Obviously I need to explore this idea more!

Hi Brian:
I agree - masculinity is good, femininity is good. But humanity is more important to me than either. I'm not suggesting that I raise my kids to be neutered sexless creatures.

I'm just suggesting that, to me, what makes a Good Man is more complex than "real men like guns." I agree that we need positive images of men in the media - your insight about sitcoms is something I hadn't thought of, frankly, but will concede. And I'd go further: look at commercials where the men are slobby balding average guys but the women are supermodels spinning brooms like ninjas. If we take our gender cues from those sources, we're all in trouble.

But as to your suggestion that I would encourage my son to be feminine by hoping he doesn't gravitate to violent play (while understanding that I may have only limited impact on that), are you suggesting that men who DON'T have an interest in guns, NASCAR, etc. are inherently less male or feminine? Was Gandhi feminine because of his convictions about nonviolence? Or Martin Luther King, Jr. (who was nonviolent, but apparently a lothario) emasculated by that rejection (or was his womanizing a legitimate redemption of his manliness?).

I'm just trying to find a way to ensure my children are good humans first, and that male or female they choose a way of defining that gender that they are comfortable with, not one that our consumer culture is selling them.

It's an interesting question your comment raises: which came first - attacks on masculinity (and I'd be interested to read exactly how you are defining that) in pop culture or depictions of loutish oafs. Using your TV reference, Ralph Cramden was certainly a doofus, and you seem to yearn for a return to a time when gender was more clearly defined - like the 50s, when Ralph was king of the airwaves - and far fewer shows were on at that time to compete with that message. Furthermore, given the steep decline in the presence of sitcoms in favor of dramas and reality TV, I'm not sure we have so much to be worried about on that front. What do you think?

When my son was born (1984) and my daughter (1985) I thought I would have Robert Bly and Gloria Steinam. By the time she was 18 months old it was clear that they were more akin to GI Joe and Barbie. As 20-somethings they have surprised me in that they are more like the hoped-for icons with their own gender plays on the later. I am still awed by this reality in our lives.
In my life I know that I had to get with their innate personalities and allow that to be who they were/are while teaching them about right and wrong, positive behavior and negative behavior. It was (and still is to some degree) a practice in seperating gender from behavior. Gender is how we identify in the world in relationship to a set of constructions about "boys" and "girls". Looking into the transgendering and transexual communities we can see all sorts of constructions that don't conform to what our society says is proper or "natural" gender identification. However, as a parent I have always found it critical to allow my kids to organize a gender construct that is authentic to them regardless of what our social conventions are confortable with.
I agree with Brian that the amount of men made to look like idiots on TV is staggering. I am always left wondering where the men are and why aren't they rising up against this. A huge part of the Women's Movemenet in the 20th century was about not allowing ourselves to be mede to look like passive, frail, stupid, less-than "girls". This work is not done but we have made some significant progress in how we are treated in the public mind. (However, we are also loosing ground in this current culture war.) Women can now wear pants and not be gendered as male in a derogatory. I wonder if we will ever get to the place where men can wear dresses and not be gendered as female in a derogatory way?

Thanks so much for this excellent discussion, everyone. I'm thrilled to hear so many different voices -- men, women, parents of young children, parents of grown children -- weighing in on this. It's one reason why I really wanted to do these two books -- these issues are fascinating, and intensely personal and universal, all at once. Thanks, Asha, for a thoughtful review, and thanks to everyone for this intelligent, compelling conversation!

Much to respond to here. I'll try to take it in chunks.

Jill, I think you answered your own question a bit when you asked, "How do you let superheros fight and not let kids hurt each other?" The answer is to let superheros fight but stop the action when the kids hurt each other. My oldest son and daughter (ages 6 and 4) play with their toy light sabers all the time. And when one of them gets cracked on the knuckles (or head, or legs, etc.) and comes crying we give them a hug and tell them that's what happens when you fight so be careful. Play-fighting is fine in context but they're learning responsibility and that fighting has real consequences. I think it's also important to look at the real-life male influences in their life. As Betsy said, if our kids' only (or primary) models of masculinity (or femininity) are in the media then we're in for a world of trouble, and violence is only the tip of the iceberg.

And Betsy, I'm most assuredly not saying that boys without a strong interest in violence, cars, sports, cars, etc. are less masculine. I'm saying that I see a strong undercurrent in our culture that's working to neuter men and make them weak (depictions in TV and commercials are a case in point). Ghandi and King are valid examples of masculinity because of their strength in opposing violence - would we celebrate King if he nonviolently shied away from conflict and didn't speak truth to power in a bold and courageous way? Same with Ghandi? I think not. And my primary model of masculinity is Jesus, who was nonviolent, strong, selfless, confident, and honoring of women in a way that was revolutionary in his culture. That's the sort of masculinity I want to aspire to and want my sons to aspire to.

And Betsy, your comments about what the consumer culture is selling our children is spot-on and critically important. One of my proudest accomplishments as a dad is when I ask my son why there are commercials on TV and he says, "Because they want us to buy those things and give them our money so they can have all our money, but we don't want them to have our money." And, as his ability for abstract thought develops, the conversation will then expand to include how they want our ideas and often want us to believe the same things they do, about gender roles and consumption and the elevating of materialism above all else.

In terms of returning to more clearly defined gender roles, I wouldn't claim Ralph Kramden or Archie Bunker as masculine ideals. Sheriff Andy Taylor maybe, but not Ralph and Archie. I think we've swung, as is often the case, from one unhealthy extreme to another (and I think the same has happened with femininity, from one unhealthy extreme to another). From the "breadwinner"/"strong silent type"/"I'll bring home the bacon and you keep the house and cook the dinner and raise the children, dear" to the emasculated non-man (again, as on sitcoms and TV commercials). I happen to be the primary money-earner in our house now as my wife is a stay-at-home mom, but I also cook dinner at least once a week (usually Wednesdays), sweep the kitchen floor each night after dinner, and have primary bath-time and bed-time duty for the kids. I don't want to hold myself up as the ideal (God forbid! just ask my wife and kids what THEY would think about that idea!), but can't we have a cultural view of masculinity that's both strong and caring, both providing and nurturing, both disciplining and encouraging?

Robin, you say, "...as a parent I have always found it critical to allow my kids to organize a gender construct that is authentic to them regardless of what our social conventions are confortable with." I guess I've always found it simpler and more accurate to teach my kids that boys have a penis and girls have a vagina. And also that, as others have said, they don't need to be pigeonholed into exactly what the culture says (and on that point I concur with what you say about gender constructs), but to also not be ashamed of how they were created (as male or female). I think we skate on very thin ice when we take an abnormal (ie rare, uncommon, statistically in the minority) population like transgender or transsexual and try to apply that to the population as a whole.

Looking forward to hearing more responses and continuing the conversation.

Thanks for your comments Brian. I know lots of really wonderful, dedicated men who have embraced the new-found freedom to be dads and who don't think its a sissy (neutered) thing to do. However, I am wonderinf how much of a minority you are in the masculinity spectrum. I also see a lot of men who are more than confortable with the "good old ways". I guess time will tell.

I don't think I was saying that giving kids the freedom to construct their gender identites regrdless of our social conventions was saying that I don't want them to know that girls and boys have differnt parts. Sex and Gender are the two issues we're dealing with here and I really am trying to seperate them becasue I think this is where we get into trouble. The reaason I brought up the "numerically non-normaitve" (a professor of mine used this term once in a class) trans communities was to say that we have something to learn from them. They ask us to look at our constructions about gender, that's all. And as parents we can project our desires for a particular kind of gender expression or we can nurture them into themselves. Doing the later means we need to be comfortable with our own gender identities and know where we end and where our kids begin. I know I've struggled with the "pink-ness" of my daughter but it has made me deal with my own stuff around femeninity and being a woman.

Great dialogue and a necessary one. Thank.

I must say, Robin's comment about her daughter's "pink-ness", the extreme side of femininity, made me think. The "guns, violence and NASCAR" is to me the extremes of masculinity. My mother swallowed hard when I chose bubblegum pink for my bedroom wall paint at age 7. I owned pink everything. She hated ruffles, lace, bows and all that "girly stuff" but never stopped me from wearing it. (She did point out the disadvantages of itchy clothes and underpants showing on the playground.) I was stuck with that paint til I was 16! (and the blankets, forever!) By the time I got to repaint, I thought I'd never want to see pink again. I probably avoided it for ten years. As an adult, I like having the pink and feminine touches in my wardrobe. If I had girls, I'd tough out the pink years and know that they'd probably come out on the other side ok.

As a mom of boys, I'm inexperienced. I didn't grown up with any boys. Even my neighborhood was all girls. I noticed them in my teen years ;) but only as the wife of one have I started to learn how they tick. The differences between my husband and my boys seems like a lot. And that's where I try to nose in. But, if I give them the same credit that my mother gave me, I'd let them express the masculine extremes and trust that they'll become more moderate as they mature. It sounds like Robin saw the same changes in her two children. I'm really going to try to relax about their play. I still can't allow gun play, but I'm going to chill out with the fighting play. Maybe I'll even let them get the foam swords and shields they want. Brian, I'll keep you posted! Who knew Parent Hacks would make such a change in my parenting!

I think the largest problem is how gender is forced on our children. I want my daughter to be a female human being, not a girly girl. Yet if I want to get her a shirt with hockey or baseball (she is 22 months and loves to watch both with me -- for 10 minutes at a time or so) I get boys clothes.

The vast majority of everything for girls is pink or lavender or lime green, and it is nearly impossible to find jeans that don't have swirly pink designs embroidered on them. Her grandmother buys her almost exclusively pink clothes, even though I ask her to mix it up some.

My preference would be to get her plain jeans, plain pants, plain shirts, plain hats, plain dresses, wildly weird socks (OK, so I'm not all boring) in all colors and patters and let her decide over time what she likes. If it's pink, good for her. If it's blue, good for her. If it's chartruese, I'll learn a new color.

But the first few years are very impressionable, and there is a real effort to use clothes, toys, etc. to acculterate children according to outdated gender roles.

My mother and grandmother were not even a little bit girly, but both were definitely women. Both had Ph.D.s when women didn't get them, and were tough as nails. They were also both stunningly beautiful women who dressed in feminine clothes and wore makeup. But they would not bow to anyone based on their gender.

I want the same for my little girl when she grows up, and I fear that the material options we have for her are trying to push her away from that.

Growing up, I was never a "girly" girl. My brother and I shared the cars and trucks, and we both "investigated" the talking-singing doll and it was broken less than 48 hours after it was gifted to me. My dad taught me wiring and basic plumbing around the house, and how to change a tire, with my brother, before he let either of us drive a car. My brother learnt to make brownies and apple pie before I ever attempted to make a grilled cheese sandwich which he had always excelled at. My choices for clothes are usually simple and not flowery - very hard to shop for.

Now that I have a son, I find it hard to find him simple clothes that are not printed with dinos and trucks, but it is certainly easier shopping for him than for my best friend's daughter who is the same age, and who wears predominantly pink flowery shirts (I try to buy her non-flowery clothes just so she is presented with some choice). I can see how I might have been challenged if I had had a daughter instead.

I walked into Day Care with my son one morning, and he saw 3 of his girl friends playing with dolls. He promptly picked up a doll and sat down amidst them. I was not surprised but I noticed that the teacher did offer him a car instead, but I said it was OK if he wanted to join the girls. He loves RC cars, bikes and G.I.Joe's, and loves airplanes and is the easiest kid on a flight everytime we leave town. I rarely see girls who are excited just watching for cars on the street or looking for airplanes at the local airstrip.

I do notice that he will hug his boy best friend, but after a hug for his girl best friend, he will deliver a kiss on her lips. What can I say? He is 20 months old and learning from everyone around him.

Anyway, I think boys and girls learn and there is always nature and nurture at play. My son always received comments from strangers that he was such a "pretty girl" and now people somment that he is "such a boy". Watching little kids and trying to stereotype, people make comments about them being "all boy/girl" but no one makes those comments when they grow up. They usually notice the "sensitive boys" and the "boisterous girls" (one of whom I was). But what you got to teach them is either way, you stand by them, encourage them to believe in themselves and their choices. Let them make the choices and learn from their friends and teachers, but we have to provide them with the support and encouragement to make their decisions and stand up for themselves.

Let them start making choices with colors and clothes - usually when they start getting picky with food at about 18 months is when they are ready to discern clothing & toy choices as well. Rather than trying to control the stimuli, we should present choices, observe and learn from their choices, so we can learn their character and personality better.

I know I'm a few days late to this, but I thought it was important to note that one of my problems with gender typing is that it works in opposites: machines or babies, rough or gentle, pink or blue.

Brian, you keep talking about the emasculation of men and robbing them of their strength through media portrayals, but I say that strength is not a masculine trait, it is the trait of a good person, a good human.

We don't need to teach our boys to be strong, we need to teach them to be good people who make good choices. And the same for our girls: strength is a gender neutral trait. As are kindness, empathy, humour, curiosity, loyalty, caring, protecting... Those are the traits I want my son to have. The fact that he is a machne freak whose favourite colour is pink? Who knows where that came from and what it means.

Mamaloo, that's almost exactly what I wrote a couple of days ago in a long (and long-winded) post to this conversation - unfortunately the post got lost and I haven't had time to re-write it. I am hard-pressed to identify a single trait that I identify as exclusively male - what I see is more 'percentages' so to speak. I want all my children to be brave - maybe males will have that in greater concentration, so perhaps we need to encourage it more in our daughters. Perhaps all kids have aggressive tendencies - again, possibly greater in males, and thus (perhaps) to be channeled...but those traits I will encourage in my son (and daughter, should I have one) will be more focused on being a good human.

One interesting note: Ann Hulbert in her book "Raising America" discusses debates about child rearing over the 20th century - concerns over "sissifying" our sons or not preparing them to be sturdy enough in "today's world" are nothing new under the sun. Reading pundits from 110 years ago debate the same false dichotomy is really enlightening.

It's almost funny how far we have and haven't come since some of those early gender discussions!

It struck me that one of the things we're discussing here is a difference between nature and nuture. If you have to teach it to your children, it's nurture. And, if it's a nurturing thing, I say it's gender neutral: like strength or bravery.

My sons fascination with loud machines, machines that do specific things like fight fires or dig holes or transpot people and things: that was something that came from him. Of course, when it became apparent that he gravitated towards those things, we encouraged it. But, we also encouraged a love of music (making sounds and singing and dancing) but he wasn't much interested. Building thngs with blocks and such, not much interested. Dragging around a lovey of some sort, not interested. But we encouraged him to try those things out to see if he had an inclination to them. Instead, the son of two writers decided that, almost exclusively, his heart and mind belonged to machines.

That's nature. That's what is masculine about him, I suppose. But, then, am I calling that masculine and imagining it's the hardness of the machines, their metal and gears and loudness and bigness, all things our society thinks of as male? Am I calling them male because our society makes the intellectual association between 'hard', 'fast', 'loud', 'active'... and maleness? Because, on examination, I don't really think those things are nexcesarily male, just an association we make consciously.

Babbling? Perhaps!

I majored in Sociology as a Berkeley undergrad in the late 80's, so this discussion about gender and the nature-nurture question scratches a fundamental itch. It's so refreshing to hear your thoughtful responses. I hope I can teach my kids to honor their inclinations and pursue their interests without worrying too much about whether they fall squarely in the "masculine" or "feminine" stereotype. This will be harder during certain phases...especially as they get older when peer pressure starts ratcheting up. I try to remember that some lessons I teach them may have an incubation period of 15-20 years -- I may not see the results till they are grown. Indeed, I may never know the results.

Great discussion!

When my daughter was born, I was determined to foster strength...so she didn't have Barbies, just gender-neutral books, toys, and puzzles and plain-ol' dolls. Guess what? She liked Barbie anyway. And her room is pink.

When my son was born, I was a more relaxed, experienced mom. I also planned to supply gender-neutral toys, but I wasn't as concerned as with my daughter. One of his first words was "ball", he's still obsessed with Hot Wheels, and he wants to be a paleontologist when he grows up. And his room is decorated with dinosaurs.

A little self-examination...why did I try more gender-neutrality with my daughter than my son? Was it just because I was less experienced in parenting? Or perhaps because I know that the world is tougher on girls and women?

When my niece wanted a play set for her birthday that consisted of a supermarket checkout station, I just couldn't buy it for her. Perhaps I should have, but it felt like I would have been encouraging her to aspire to being something less than her potential. Snobby of me, I know.

There's nothing we can do about their nature, but how far can we nurture them into a direction that will give them the best in life?

And don't knock NASCAR! I've taken my son, and it's a blast to watch those crashes! (as long as no one gets hurt)

Leslee

I just found this site, and I am enjoying this thread immensely. As a woman who has struggled with "gender roles" for the greater part of 41 years, I absolutely appreciate the concern of all parents about what and HOW to raise the kids, re: genderstuff, in the most beneficial way. The older I get the more frightening it is to think of all the SUB-conscious ways I mess up my kids, so the things I feel most strongly about I have to stand up for.
I thought I wanted to have a girl when my first child came along, b/c I was going to teach her to WATCH OUT for men.... lol.
God's sense of humor was showing, yep, I got 2 boys. I'm glad He knows better than me; I'm trying to raise my boys to be the kind of --PERSON, really--man that is a credit to his gender. Really, it IS about just BEING the best we can all be, isn't it?

I’ve tried writing this twice, now, and it is absurdly long each time. (Okay, it is still too long, dangit!)

I have 2 sons, and 2 daughters. I had no gender-based boundaries with my sons that I was aware of. They could do anything, ‘girly’ or ‘boyish’, I didn’t care. They have (so far) ended up mostly just being who they have always seemed to be, with a family-specific set of gender roles layered on. Which means that pretty much anyone can do anything, except what their bodies lack the function for (procreation-related). Boy stuff has simply been defined as ‘things that boys like, and we’re boys, so anything we like is boy stuff’. This includes Care Bears and jewelry. My boys like their ‘bling’!

I did have gender-based issues with my daughters, almost from their birth. Deep down, I did not want them to be ‘girly’. They could be as ‘boyish’ as they liked, but not girly... please, anything but girly! It was a gut reaction, based on my own childhood observation of how adults treated ‘girly girls’ - Like idiots who weren’t capable of doing anything on their own, in other words. YUCK. I had to face that one down as a parent, and intentionally choose to let them find their own way. It is a different era, and how to present themselves as girls and women is a choice for them to make, as much as it was for me to make for myself. In the process of becoming comfortable with my daughters being free to roam the full spectrum, I found myself no-longer loathing the color pink. It even looks good on me. Go figure.

But once I opened up to the girly thing, I found myself launched right into the ‘gender-typical’ reactions. ...

Long ago, I read a study that found that how long parents look at a child while they play varies by culture expectations, even when the parents don’t profess those expectations themselves (no, I can’t find the study again, sorry!). So, when a girl in our culture plays with dolls, most parents watch longer than when she plays with trucks. When she plays with trucks but makes them be ‘mommy truck and baby truck’, they again watch longer than when she plays ‘crash boom smashup’ with the same trucks. Kids are sharp. They know when you’re looking. They want you to look. They learn.

And so, newly-rebounding into the culture of girly-girl, I found myself watching Rowan play with the baby doll her brother had dropped one day. I watched, half-aware, thinking of something else. While I was doing this, I *noticed* my daughter watching me watching her. She played more ostentatiously with the doll, while watching me watching her. Wow, that was fast! She picked up within seconds that I’d focused on her while playing with the doll. She put the doll down, and played with some blocks. And then watched me to see if I was watching her.

Jeez.

I tried looking away. She went back to the doll. And oh so casually turned around, eyes going across me, watching to see if I was watching her. I kept my eyes averted, using peripheral vision to see what she’d do next. The doll was patted, and put down, and she went back to some other game.

Over the next few days, she pursued the doll repeatedly, in front of me. She played ‘doll games’ with other toys, in front of me. I measured my ‘watching’, trying to watch each activity the same amount of time, giving neither negative (looking away/ignoring) nor positive (looking longer for one thing than another), as much as I could figure. The doll was gradually lost amongst the other toys, and she went back to playing with balls, which had lit her up from the first time she’d seen one. I wonder... I might well have changed that passion without ever knowing, if I had not noticed her noticing me watching her. I could have encouraged her to play dolls, over and above the object that she’d responded to so viscerally at first contact. And I'd never have seen that the 'gender play' was mine, not hers.

So ...

Gender behavior born in entirely? I don’t think as much as we hope. More than none, I’d say. But that experience of watching her behavior change just from a few moments of watching her without thinking ... That made me think. I’d watched the boys for all their play. I was not a boy, and I was fascinated with how they would do things. I likely watched longer when they did non-gender typical play, because I was interested in how it could develop. I watched longer when they played with jewelry, because my grandfather was a gemologist, and I wondered if the interest was born in. Now, I can’t say. Maybe it was because I watched, to see if the interest was there, and so therefore the interest grew. Would they be obsessed with 'bling' if I had not? No way to run the other experiment, is there?

Beyond that, perhaps a bit more gender than we’d like is in the eye (or mental definitions) of the beholder, as well. I have two children who adore snazzy clothing, and care fiercely how their clothes look, what goes with what, and so forth. One is my oldest boy. The other is Rowan. I find myself having to remind myself that Rowan’s adamant insistence on ‘pretties’ to wear is no more ‘girly’ than my oldest boy’s passion for black jeans, cowboy boots, and silver rings.

I do need to get that book, though. This mother-daughter thing seems potentially messy. And they're not even two years old yet!

I just discovered this thread and have been reading with fascination. This enlightening dialogue really does need to happen. Thanks!

With our firstborn, we didn't find out whether or not we were having a boy or a girl early. Family and friends were beside themselves! How would they know whether to begin stocking up on pink or blue?!

We requested gender neutral, licenced character-free clothing and gear, and both of these requests fell upon largely deaf ears. As soon as our DD was born, the pink began rolling in. One infant outfit even had cotton angel wings sewn in! It is true that there are very few choices for girls or boys when working with a limited budget. Sad, but true.

Three and a half years passed before we had our next daughter. While we still limited television access as much as possible because of what we consider unscrupulous marketing tactics being targeted against children and also many poor role models in the media, we did receive a fair amount of hand-me-downs and loosened up on the pink thing. After all, by the time our firstborn was old enough to request the ubiquitous pink and purple, she got her share of it anyway. We just didn't want her to think it was her sole choice or her birthright.

I just ran across this - I think the comment on hand-me-downs in especially interesting. I noted early on that my daughters each had a color preferance: Lenora liked orange, and Iliana loved yellow. Incidentally, these are my two least-favorite colors, only narrowly more disliked than hot-pink. However, I was fascinated that they didn't like pink. (Side note: Iliana has always loved bling, but not Lenora).

That is starting to change. They are starting to go more for pink and purple - especially Lenora - and I suspect that the reason is that our clothing is almost all hand-me-downs, very little of which is orange or yellow. They still show some of their own preferences, but Lenora especially loves the familiar - and sadly, we haven't been able to afford to make orange very familiar.

The "what we watch encouraging them" info is very interesting to me - I tend to pay a lot of attention when my girls play with either baby dolls, or wheeled vehicles, because of the strong gender stereotypes - I'm curious which they will prefer. They seem to go for them about equally, but both are popular choices. Hrrmmmm . . . I may be chasing my children towards gender-stereotyped toys, when I should be chasing them towards toys I want to help them play with! I really want an excuse to play with Legos again someday :-)

very interesting, but I don't agree with you
Idetrorce

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