Monday, April 16, 2012
I've had the conversation. And it's true, I've been astounded by the differences in my children (as compared with each other and with other children of the opposite sex) in terms of what they find compelling from a surprisingly young age. My baby boy's first song was an ode to balls; my baby girl would pour over family photo albums and memorize each name and face.
But when you become a parent, you also encounter a world that seems disturbingly eager to gender-fy your darling babe, even before he or she is born. The mountains of pink clothing we received for baby Frances! The strangers in the grocery store who would coo over Gabriel, calling him a little linebacker!
People smile and wink when they knowingly ask me if Frances loves to paint her nails or if Gabriel loves playing with trucks. Anticipating my affirmative answer makes them happy; it confirms their sense of what the world is like. Children adhering to type provides a kind of pleasurable relief for adults. And the thing is, for the most part my kids do like gendered stuff. But I want to protest these steamrolling sentiments that aim to smooth out every child's irreducible strangeness. She might like to paint her nails, but not in the way that you think!
And I know I've done exactly this stuff to my children and other people's children too, beloved friends and strangers alike. Why do we like it when girls act like girls and boys act like boys? Why do we reward them for doing so? I cannot help but think these messages that begin in infancy impact our kids as they grow.
With Frances, I'm more sensitive to other adults' assumptions of girly-ness and have vicariously triumphed in the small ways she defies expectations. Maybe because I'm a girl, I'm more protective of her, more aware of the troubles that our cultural and social norms for girls can stir up. But Gabriel? I take great pleasure in his otherness, an otherness I often ascribe to his boyishness (why not simply his Gabriel-ness?). We washed the dusty yellow-green blanket of pollen off the car today and he reveled in hose-wielding. He had a knight-themed birthday party featuring swords and shields and many other little boys in our backyard on Saturday. In a conflict, he doesn't back down. He sprawls on the floor and draws baseball players and great white sharks to relax. I am delighted by all these things.
For his fourth birthday, my son wanted to watch Star Wars. So - over three days - he watched the first (1977) movie on our big screen in the playroom, accompanied by grandparents, parents, and sister, in varied groupings. I hadn't seen it since I was a kid, and though I didn't remember the plot much, when I saw those stormtroopers firing away, I was transported back to my elementary school playground, watching mystified as the boys chased each other and dodged behind play equipment, all the while firing Star Wars laser guns and shouting pachew pachew pachew! They were so strange to me. I had no clue as to what could possibly be fun about making all those noises and diving behind the slide to narrowly escape invisible stormtroopers.
The boys seemed utterly different then, like creatures from another planet. But they don't just come out that way! We like to think so, because it would let us off the hook, but we adults - in ways far more subtle and unthinking than providing gendered toys - do a lot to reinforce boy-ness and girl-ness. Why do we like to diminish kids' unique particularities by rewarding certain behaviors and ignoring others? What is the strange pleasure we take in reinforcing gendered forms of expression, even in children we love dearly?
Am I way off on all this? Thoughts, readers...?