When I was five or six years old, I begged my parents to buy me a pink, flower-covered picnic set. I wanted it so that I could have tea parties.
My parents initially seemed a bit worried. They checked with me several times, to see if the pink one was the one that I really wanted. I assured them that it was (the colour had nothing to do with it, the sheer amount of goodness inside, as well as the handy carry-basket was what swayed me). Once they were sure that it really was what I wanted, they bought it for me for my birthday.
I had great times with that picnic set. I set up tea-parties (complete with lukewarm, milky, sugary tea and biscuits) for my parents, for my brothers and, if no-one else was interested, for my toys. The colour of the toy and it’s intended demographic were completely irrelevant. I had fun.
You might, therefore assume that I was quite a ‘feminine’ boy. But you’d be wrong. I played a lot of sport and I enjoyed it. I rode bikes over home-made jumps, I hit golf balls in the local park (and ran when they landed on neighbouring roofs), I loved being outdoors and getting dirty. I adored computer games, and watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on television. The fact is, as a kid, I always did the things that I wanted to do. Some of them fit the ‘boy’ stereotype, some of them did not.
As I grew older, I certainly became more aware of gender expectations. Eventually I grew embarrassed of my tea set and I hid it away in the far reaches of my toy cupboard. Finally, one day in late primary school, I managed to dispose of it for good. Gender stereotyping had caught up with me, I abandoned all things with girly connotations, for the sake of fitting in with my mates.
Girls and Cars
Today I sat on the play mat with Hannah. She rummaged through her toybox as usual (the kid loves a good rummage) and she pulled out her toy car. Hannah placed the car on the smooth tiles next to her mat and she gave it a great big push. She made her adorable version of the ‘vroom vroom’ sound and off it went. I chased after it and, to Hannah’s extreme delight, sent it back her way with my own ‘vroom vroom’.
The game was on! For a full fifteen minutes we played with that car, pushing it to each other, making funny noises, all while laughing away heartily. Sometimes the car rolled smoothly over the tiles. At other times it skidded sideways. At one point Hannah discovered that the edge of the carpet made the car jump up in the air, when pushed with enough force. Each time something new happened, I could see on Hannah’s face that she was soaking it in, enjoying every moment, and learning something new.
It was a glorious moment of shared play – the kind of interaction that puts a smile on your face for the rest of the day. It had been completely initiated by Hannah, I had merely enjoyed the ride!
Eventually Hannah tired of the car game and she returned to her box for another rummage. She returned with two soft toys, one of which she insisted belonged on my head. Of course, I obliged and a new game began.
Reflecting on that moment with the car, I began to wonder if there are girls out there who still miss out on the toy car experience, because of some ill-conceived notions of gender stereotype. Likewise, how many boys don’t get to experience the joys of making dad put a soft toy on his own head, because soft toys aren’t ‘boyish’ enough?
Can We Change?
I’m sure things have become a lot better than they were, but I still see too many instances where gender stereotyping is dished out without a second thought. At a recent rhyme time at the local library, the Rhyme Master asked if there were any boys in the room who liked trains. That was sheepishly followed by an “I guess girls could like trains too”. Well Rhyme Master, if Hannah had been old enough to comprehend your question and provide a verbal response, I reckon she would have spent a full ten minutes explaining why her Duplo and Fisher Price trainsets are two of her all-time favourite toys.
I genuinely believe that if we engage in gender stereotyping with our young children, we do them a great disservice. We limit the potential of their experiences to half of all that is available. Furthermore, we teach them that gender roles are normal and expected as they grow up, that their lot in life is pre-determined by the genitalia with which they were born. That is not the kind of lesson I want Hannah to learn.