Recently I was walking around Babies R Us when I overheard a mom talking to her son. The little boy was older than my son, about four years old. They were discussing what to get a friend for his birthday.
“Ooh, Mommy, let’s get him Doc McStuffins,” the little boy enthusiastically suggested. “He’s not gonna want that, silly” she responded with her nose wrinkled. “That’s for girls.”
I rolled my eyes and kept walking.
But the conversation stuck with me. Why did that mom (a woman herself, no less) feel the awesome Disney cartoon wasn’t for all kids? Because the lead character is a smart girl? I was disappointed that she shot down her son’s interest and in one move taught him that he couldn’t like a character that wasn’t “masculine enough.”
I’ve always been curious about the nature vs. nurture of gender roles in child-rearing. As a Sociology major in college, this topic was a hot issue (I even took a course which was entirely dedicated to the Sociology of Gender.) And as a social worker working with kids and parents, the origin of gender roles in families comes up often. But now as a boy mama, I think about gender roles even more.
As soon as I learned I was having a boy, I knew I wanted to raise him to be a gentleman. I wanted a son who is brave enough to share his emotions, respects women, and recognizes everyone’s equality. I saw how some boys in my neighborhood acted and I honestly had fears of giving birth to a loud, obnoxious, burping contest winner. I watched the boys on my block turn their lacrosse sticks into guns and shoot passersby, and I wondered where they picked up such crap.
There’s no question that nature and nurture are both responsible for a lot. Some things about boys and girls are innate and some are learned or reinforced. When I learned I was having a boy, I talked with my husband about some conscious decisions I felt we needed to make about raising our precious bundle of boy. My husband, who is by no means a Neanderthal, was not quite as concerned about these things as I was, but he agreed that he wanted our son to be a gentle, respectful guy. “We are not raising an asshole,” I remember him saying once half-kiddingly after seeing a bunch of rowdy teenage boys acting up at Smashburger.
So as I prepped for our boy’s arrival, I made some decisions. I knew he wouldn’t play with guns (because there’s nothing fun about teaching a boy or a girl to hurt people.) I wanted to allow him to find his own interests as much as possible, and I felt compelled to keep the gender stuff kind of neutral. I wasn’t obsessive about it; I just didn’t want to shove a rough, tough, machismo world down my baby’s throat. Because he was just that…a baby. An innocent, sweet, gentle bundle of joy who I knew would be born free of the stupid stereotypes we fall into later in life.
For his nursery, I picked aqua and white. I wanted soft, soothing, calming baby colors, and these two neutral colors are so serene and just happen to be fine for any baby. I decorated with relaxing images and words appropriate for a baby. I picked out onesies in whites, yellows, greens, and soft blues too. I certainly embraced him being a boy but didn’t like the clothes, decorations, or toys that featured dark colors, harsh images, or rough wording like “Built Tough.” The gifts I received with monsters making gross faces and language suggesting my son would be a player went right back to the store. I just didn’t understand why this innocent little newborn had to be thrown into a caveman role when he hadn’t even formed his own identity yet.
Now that my Jack is a 20-month-old toddler, I’m fascinated to see his personality and innate interests starting to blossom. He loves strawberries, music, dancing, and walking in the park. And he has been in love with trains from as early as he could recognize the whistle of our local commuter line. No one put trains in front of him, it just happened, and that love grew into an obsession with anything Thomas and Friends. As I understand it, he is among the millions of little boys with a natural interest in trains. Around the same time, he started noticing construction sites and becoming curious about them. Then while watching PBS Kids, I noticed how drawn he was to Bob the Builder. And now, we can’t drive by a construction site without him delightfully screaming, “BaBa!” out the window. We never bought him a dump truck or told him what show to watch. Just like his interest in trains, his construction fascination came naturally.
While these typical boy interests came naturally to my son, I’ve also loved to see the lack of inhibition small children have before they are taught that certain things are “labeled” for their gender. Jack loves trains and bulldozers, but he is also interested in other characters that are typically labeled for girls. He gets crazy excited whenever he sees Nick Junior’s newest genie cartoon Shimmer & Shine. He is a huge fan of Mickey Mouse but he also loves Minnie, and doesn’t care that one has a bow and a pink dress and the other does not. I’ve given him a set of Sofia the First figurines and he liked the princesses just as much as the animals and the prince. And he plays with boys and girls at his gym classes, because these sweet kids have not yet been polluted to think that they have to have separate interests.
The good news I’ve noticed is that society — and cartoons — are trying to be less gender-specific. Hits like Paw Patrol (another one of Jack’s faves) have both male and female pup heroes. Shimmer & Shine‘s lead female character skateboards with her male best friend, and he goes to (and enjoys) the ballet with her. And Bob the Builder has a highly qualified female builder named Wendy on his team. These shows are smart to appeal to both boys and girls while teaching them that males and females can be friends, have the same interests, and perform the same jobs.
While the clothing and toy industries still have some learning to do, some companies and stores are hearing the progressive message loud and clear. Toy catalogs in Europe seem to be making better strides in this area than in the U.S. — even when owned by an American parent company like Toys R Us. Target has discussed its goals to eliminate “boy aisles” and “girl aisles” from their stores’ toy departments, and this practice has already begun in Europe.
My goals for my son have always been and still are to let him be himself. If the values we instill in him stick, he’ll grow to be a good man who respects himself as well as others. I remember watching a documentary in my undergrad Sociology of Gender class that was pretty extreme. Parents raised their kids with no gender identity…boys unable to wear the “boys” clothes they liked and girls unable to play with princesses. It was pretty ridiculous because in my mind, that too is forcing an agenda upon a child. And it’s a child, people, not a science project. The goal should just be to let kids be kids and hope our daughters and our sons grow into open-minded adults who are equally willing to cook their own dinner and mow their own lawn.
So if my son grows up loving construction vehicles more than anything, I’ll embrace it because that’s his choice. If a little girl is drawn to sparkly princesses, so what? As long as we teach them to follow their hearts and how to treat everyone equally, the right messages will sink in. I just believe it’s up to us as parents to let our kids be themselves and not force stereotypes on them. So if you’re reading this, birthday-gift-shopper-lady, buy the kid Doc McStuffins. Maybe Doc will teach you a thing or two.
Doc McStuffins photo Courtney of Disney. Shimmer & Shine and Paw Patrol photos courtesy of Nickelodeon. Thomas & Friends and Bob the Builder photos courtesy of PBS Kids.
I’d love to hear your thoughts! How have your kids’ natural interests shined through? How do you encourage them to include the opposite sex when playing or sharing toys? How do you model healthy gender roles for them?