Way back in the ’70s in Southern California, my mother tried an experiment with me and my older brother: She gave me toy trucks and him dolls to prove that our play preferences were socially induced. She was certain that our biological coding had nothing to do with our choice of Barbie over Tonka.
At least in our case, my mom was wrong. I naturally gravitated toward the “girl” toys, and my brother snatched back his “boy” toys with an impatient eye roll.
Granted, the study was entirely unscientific. This was, after all, the period in which my mom dabbled in carob chips (I can still taste their chalky horridness) and installed a giant brass pyramid over her bed (with matching tiny brass pyramids we wore on our heads, which were supposed to align our something or other…I repeat: Southern California in the ’70s). But she was on to something.
These days we know so much more about gender, children, and gender and children. And yet, things are not all that different. Some 40ish years later, my 5-year-old daughter has suddenly started rejecting toys she says are “for boys.” And from her perspective, I can see what she means: “Girl” things are still pink and frilly and coated in glitter. “Boy” things are navy and black and metallic and industrial looking. She’s barraged with messages every day that she’s supposed to choose the “girl” stuff. This sits about as well with me as the carob chips. Why in heaven’s name are we still teaching our kids to see things in such stark terms? Does it have to be either/or, princesses/trucks?
I don’t want either of my children to limit their choices because they think something doesn’t suit their gender—but I feel this even more strongly for my daughter. Here are five things we can all do to help our girls move beyond the girlie:
1. Watch sports with our girls, not just our boys. It’s too easy to assume boys are interested in professional or college sports and girls aren’t, especially in a home where Mom isn’t that into them (like mine). Last Sunday, as we watched the U.S. team win the Women’s World Cup, my daughter asked excitedly, “Are they really all girls?” I encourage my husband to rewind whatever game he’s watching and walk our daughter through a tricky play or bad call the same way he does for our son. Of course this means she has an exceptional vocabulary of swear words, but so be it.
2. Buy neutral clothing. Avoid the swirls and pink and ruffles whenever and wherever you can. Primary is a great new source for kids’ clothing in lovely styles and hues that don’t scream SOCIETY HAS DEFINED MY GENDER. Bonus: Everything is under $25.
3. Let them code! It’s 2015; programmers rule the earth. Don’t we want our girls in that club? Check out Girls Who Code, CoderDojo and your local camps for information and classes. Otherwise, we can expect a future of all Barbie apps, all the time.
4. Encourage friendships across gender—and for God’s sake, ixnay on the all-girl birthday parties! My 9-year-old son’s best friend is a girl. They met when they were 4 and haven’t looked back. Sure, they’re going to grow apart in certain ways, but why can’t they always be close? Along with her parents, we make a concerted effort to give them time to nurture their friendship outside the gender Red Sea of school.
5. Hand your girls a stack of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Big Nate, Hardy Boys and Tintin books—and don’t forget the comic books and graphic novels! Just because a book has a cupcake and lip gloss and 17 shades of mauve on its cover doesn’t mean that’s all she can read. For slightly older girls, just tell them reading about boys is the best way to understand them. That ought to do the trick.
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