Saturday, April 7th, 2007 • No Comments on Teach Your Children Well
My friend Amy posted the following in the comments section of my Gloria Steinem post and her thoughts bear repeating:
Sexism starts early… I never thought twice about scheduling my son’s first playdate in our new town with a little girl. It seemed perfect: Everett was three weeks old and Aaron was 19 months while my friend’s two girls were aged 6 weeks and 24 months! And it was perfect. Aaron and his new best friend got along fabulously. She kick-started his verbal skills while they both learned to share. And suddenly he became interested in toilet training! It was with surprise that I realized that many mothers only schedule same-sex playdates for their sons. Not that there isn’t a time and place for boys only events (as well as girls only activities), but to never have played alongside girls??? How are these kids supposed to get along with each other in the workplace later in life if they have never learned how to play together? Plus they learn from each other, even at an early age. In a roomful of two year old boys (my son included), you generally do not hear even two words strung together… If a child speaks it is to an adult and usually in reference to a snack! Add a few girls and everyone starts talking. Aaron has a fabulous vocabulary for a little tyke, but he doesn’t use it playing with just boys. So it’s clear to me that little boys have a lot to learn from little girls. I’m sure it goes the other way around too, but then again, maybe girls really are superior in every way (hee hee).
I think Amy makes an excellent point—sexism is learned behavior, much like any kind of discrimination, including racism and homophobia. People tell their children they can be anything they want—then they limit them, and allow others to limit them, by gendering everything from color to clothing to toys to playground activities.
Every mother who stands in the toy aisle of a store and says to her daughter, “What little girl doesn’t like crafts?” and every father who says, “No son of mine is going to play with dolls.” are teaching their children about the world in which we live—and it’s not a pretty lesson. Of course, it’s a lesson that will be repeated, over and over again, throughout their childhood. By the time they reach elementary school, they’ll know the rules and their assigned roles. Resistance is futile: that was the lesson they were taught when they were six and wanted to do something only the opposite gender can do. Equality does not exist and all you have to do is turn on the television to prove it. Who is mopping the floor in the floor wax commercial? Who is eating the “Hungry Man” dinner? (“Hungry Woman” dinner just sounds silly. Women aren’t allowed to be hungry, after all.) Who is selling the newest diet craze? Who is promoting the latest technological gadget?
So what’s a parent to do? Be aware of sexism, especially subtle sexism—it’s the most insidious. Question everything, including yourself—why do you feel this way or that way about what interests your child? Consider what it means—and what you’re teaching your children—when you call your infant son a “little man” but call your infant daughter “daddy’s girl.” Words are powerful things. Even words meant to compliment can leave a lingering (and stinging) mark of sexism, discrimination and limitation long before school even starts.
Angel. Cupcake. Diva. Princess. Babydoll. I’ve seen these words on clothing for infant girls. Last weekend I saw a teenage girl (and she was barely a teenager, at that) wearing a T-shirt that said: “Love sucks. True love swallows.” Is it silly to make a connection between a pink onesie that says “Heartbreaker” and a pair of short-shorts worn by a fourth-grader that say “Juicy” and a T-shirt that promotes the oral sex skills of an underage teenage girl? I don’t think it is. One follows the other as naturally as a boy who is taught not to cry (and is spanked if he does) will find some other way to vent his emotions—and perhaps someone smaller and weaker to vent them on.
The gender discrimination boys face seems similar in some ways to the discrimination girls endure: No pink clothes. No silky pajamas. Absolutely no dolls. No Betty Crocker Easy Bake Oven. No ballet lessons. No diary, journal or self-expression of any kind (including art, unless it’s for a school project). No reading, unless it’s comic books or sports magazines. No crying, under any circumstances except a funeral. When it comes to clothes, boys may have more limitations on color, fabric and decoration than girls. Girls may wear blue as well as pink, denim as well as satin, but never the reverse; girls may get away with a cute little fire engine on their shirt but boys are never allowed to have a kitten on theirs. When they’re babies, boys’ clothes have trucks and cars and footballs on them. When they’re in middle school and high school, their clothes are emblazoned with stripes and numbers and sports teams.
However, the clothing limitations placed on boys at least allow more range of motion, more modesty, more comfort than girls are ever given. Girls in elementary school are teetering around on wedge lace-up sandals while the most uncomfortable pair of shoes a boy ever puts on might be the dress shoes he wears to church, if he’s made to dress up at all. Where girls’ clothes are cut to define the body and accentuate the feminine, boys’ clothes are non-constricting and accentuate (or increase) their physical size. The message is this: Girls are mere decoration, boys are a presence to be reckoned with. Girls (regardless of age) are labeled with descriptive words, as if merchandise for male consumption. Boys are dressed for their own comfort and pleasure, no one else’s. The teenage girl in the provocative T-shirt probably thought she was being brave, daring, maybe even shocking, but she was simply filling the gender role that was assigned to her the first time someone said, “Isn’t she precious? I bet she grows up to be homecoming queen!”
A homecoming queen who swallows. What more could a girl want to be?