I grew up a bit of a tomboy – I loved sport, had mostly male friends, and hated the colour pink. HATED it. So I never really subscribed to the ‘boys are different to girls’ school of thought. I always wanted to believe that our personalities are our own to mould, and that when a baby is born they are a blank slate ready to soak up the experiences around them. And that by extension, we somehow have some control over our own destinies. But being a mother to both a boy and a girl has opened my eyes to a few home truths.
First, babies have a personality right from birth. My daughter had a wicked temper right from her days in the NICU ward, (her nurses called her feisty, and it turned out to be a good thing), and my son, right from day one, has been a perfectionist. Through feeding issues, early milestones, right up to learning to read and building the perfect blanket fort, he has always been hard on himself if he can’t do something perfectly first time.
Second, little girls and little boys are inherently different. As much as I would love to believe otherwise, they do generally behave differently. Not all little boys and girls, of course, but many. For some inextricable reason, little girls are drawn to anything pink and shiny. I, personally, have tried to discourage this as much as I can as I can’t stand pink or shiny. I went out of my way to dress my newborn daughter in neutrals, reds or yellows rather than the standard pink. Yet still, for some reason, anything pink immediately catches her eye.
My son has loved cars and various other things with engines, (which he can describe and name with far more accuracy than me), since he could move. He is incredibly active, unswervingly over confident, and likely to climb anything that looks precarious. No one ever handed him a toy train and said – “you’re a boy, you should play with this.” Similarly, no one ever coaxed my daughter into playing with a doll dressed in a frilly pink skirt. Yet those two toys, in one way or another, have defined parts of each of their early childhoods. They’ve led to lego cities built around a complex wooden train network, encompassing shops, factories, parks and houses. And tea parties with dolls in hot pink tutus eating cupcakes and sipping from flowered tea cups from a miniature high chair. And while I have helped in building these fantasies, I am never the architect. I couldn’t come up with these ideas if I tried. That’s the magic of being a kid.
But lately as my daughter gets bigger and grows more aware it has got me thinking. If these personalities are in fact intrinsically borne in our children, what job do we play as parents in guiding their understanding of gender roles?
Strangers often stop me in public and comment on how beautiful my daughter is. I’m under no illusions here. She not even three yet, and looks can change. But for now other people seem to perceive her as very cute. She has curly blonde hair, large blue eyes and long eyelashes. Tourists take photos of her – in fact that happened just today – and I imagine somewhere in Japan there are quite a few holiday albums lovingly poured over by relatives sporting the occasional photo of my daughter.
And I’d never be ungracious about it. It’s lovely that people like to compliment her. But with society constantly sending her a message that she is beautiful, and reinforcing that message through advertising and product design teaching her that appearance is very important – how do I teach her to filter those messages and take it all with a grain of salt? How do I encourage her to be more than a pretty face, when her first conversation with most strangers she meets revolves around her appearance, and how pretty she is?
And moreover, why do we not treat boys the same way? Strangers and acquaintances will often greet my daughter with “Hello gorgeous!” and my son with “Hey buddy!” In and of itself, I have no problem with this at all. But no one tells my son he is pretty, (which in my opinion is used is a gender based compliment), or even handsome. They compliment him on how big and strong he is.
Trust me, I never thought I would write an article like this. I never thought I would be the mum that worried about gender stereotyping. When I was newly pregnant for the first time I made a conscious decision to support whatever preferences my kids develop without imposing any views on them of my own, or that society engendered in me. (Remember back then I thought of them as blank canvasses). And I don’t think we should stop complimenting little girls. They are inherently different to boys, and that’s not a bad thing. But I do wonder of gender roles are becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I wonder how this will impact our kids. I wonder how we shape them and teach them to be assertive, to stand up and be counted, to dream bigger than big and most importantly to believe they are every bit as capable as any boy. And similarly, I wonder how much pressure we out on boys to be masculine, big and strong. I worry that I can’t find clothes that aren’t pink to show my daughter there’s an alternative. I worry that my son will carry the weight of expectation on his shoulders because more is expected of him than his sister.
I think we should celebrate the differences between boys and girls, but I fear we have gone too far. Am I overthinking it? Maybe, but I don’t want to take that chance. Once that ship has sailed there is no way of bringing it back to port. For now I will take every opportunity to remind my daughter of the other amazing qualities she posseses. Qualities I deem to be far more important than appearance, which may come and go with trends and over which she has little control. Like her brother, I will attempt to fill her with confidence and teach her to reach for things that are just out of their grasp. All the while hoping we as a society become more aware of the power we have over the impressionable little minds that will become the next generation of rule makers and thought leaders.