Dinnertime at my house:
“Kiddo, so you punched your classmate in the face? Tell me about what happened. When you are feeling angry what can you do instead of hitting? Would you like it if someone hit you in the face?” … “No, but I would just dodge it.”
Kid #2 joins us at the dinner table 10 minutes after we started eating… “Honey, when I say it’s time to turn off the ipad and come to dinner I’m serious. Lately I’ve been telling you five times and you still don’t come. Let’s problem-solve this situation.” We come up with a “finish your game” warning, instead of a time warning.
“Kids, sit down and eat” (x5). Luckily it is that time of year when we can eat in the yard, although the problem is the same year-round. They are like puppy dogs – it is nearly impossible to keep them sitting for longer than three seconds.
“Kids, you’ve got to eat everything on your plate before ice cream with rhubarb sauce.”
By the time I clean my plate I am exhausted from all the parenting. I sit under a tree to read a book.
Meanwhile, the kids lay out 15 sticks of different sizes on the picnic table and start playing rock paper scissors to decide who gets to choose the next arsenal piece. Once all the sticks are divvied up they run around the yard shooting each other and sword fighting for nearly an hour.
While reading the above scenario did you make any gendered assumptions? What were they?
It’s amazing how much gender enters into our thinking without us even realizing it. The more aware we become of the gender narrative going on in our heads, the easier it is to notice and interrupt assumptions and stereotypes. This takes practice though. And I have a lot more practice to do.
I never played guns growing up, although I vaguely remember my two brothers pretending to shoot each other with sticks. I was too busy reading books and writing poems and songs while sitting under trees. And now, raising two sons, I have a hard time understanding their play. It’s easy to excuse their behavior with “Boys will be boys”. I’ve learned to move past that initial exhausted response and be much more proactive. I love this blog post on that topic – it gives me hope that my response to my boys’ behavior is on the right track. Girls often seem so much easier to parent – my friends’ daughters sit under trees singing songs. I also know plenty of boys who sing songs under trees, and I know many girls who love to get rough-and-tumble. So why do these gendered images and stereotypes pop up so easily in my head?
Right now in mainstream society there are two genders – boy and girl. Boy implies strong, big, fast, aggressive, bully – playing guns and sticks. Girl implies caring, gentle, weak, emotional, manipulative – reading books under a tree. These stereotypes don’t tell the whole truth. We are each so much more.
I have always identified very strongly with being a woman. There has never been a doubt in my mind or a feeling that I’m being forced to be someone I’m not. As I walk down this path of better understanding how gender has been constructed and why, I am more critical of that strong identity. How much has culture shaped my understanding of myself as a woman?
While I hold my identity as a woman very dear and close to my heart, I am conscious of how I have been harmed by patriarchy – that oppressive mindset/worldview/belief that says men are best, smartest, strongest, most capable, most deserving and can have their way in this world even when it means hurting others in their path. That mindset that says there are only two genders when really gender identity and expression is limitless. While patriarchy is often used to refer to men’s dominance over women, it also refers to cisgender men’s (assigned male at birth and identify as male now) dominance over everyone else including cisgender women, trans folks of all genders, and nonbinary folks. As a cisgender woman I must be allied with anyone who is harmed by patriarchy. To do so I need to better understand the experience of people who identify outside the gender binary.
“queer, trans, and gender non-conforming folks live the daily, active embodied resistance to enclosure by refusing to conform to the violently-enforced binaries that dictate that everyone is either man or woman, and that these identities are mutually exclusive and come with a universal set of behaviors, temperaments and roles. By exercising the right to be free in body and spirit, queer and trans people confront the foundational myth of the heteropatriarchal gender binary, a system that disconnects people from a right relationship with their bodies. This system defines not just the experiences of queer and Trans folks, but of all of us, demanding either our subordination to or complicity with the violence. queerness is an explicit rejection and questioning of this normalized violence, offering up opportunities for us to ally in rejecting these foundational systems of the extractive economy.” – Movement Generation Zine: From Banks & Tanks to Cooperation & Caring
What a powerful statement. Patriarchy is violent – and gender non-conforming folks live daily active resistance to that violence. Here’s an example of the violence and the resistance. Most application forms require checking a gender box – male or female. Many people I know are not checking a box and are trying to get those application forms changed. Yes!
At five and eight years old, my kids identify very strongly with being boys, yet as they grow older they will more fully understand who they are – and it is possible they will no longer identify with stereotypical boy, or as a boy at all. I want to raise my children so they are free to be their full selves, outside of boxes. For now this is happening in small ways. One son recently dressed up as a pirate and then emptied out his piggy bank and went to the flower store and spent his entire savings on a 6-pack of flowers. My other son’s teacher shared with us that when kids were making fun of a boy who was wearing a skirt, my son came to his defense, saying, “Boys can wear whatever they want. My teacher, a man, often wore a skirt to school.”
Ahhhhh, I love those moments when I see society’s gender rules bending right in front of my eyes. Those shining moments get me through all the murkier times – such as when they taunt friends with – “you run like a girl” or spit out, “That’s a girl shirt, I can’t wear that.”
The influence of peers, media, and messages from adults is unbelievably strong. So I continue to be intentional about providing counter messages – ‘There are many ways of being. You can be who you are. And others can be who they are. And girls rock!”
What am I doing to foster openness and curiosity and full self-expression in my kids?
Moving out of my comfort zone to learn things I would prefer my husband do –
I’ve gotten really good at fixing vacuum cleaners and photocopiers, I’m learning how to grill a mean hamburger, and I love mowing the lawn. I really should learn how to change the tires. Getting outside of the gender box is so good for us all!
When the kids see their dad cleaning the bathroom every week, cooking for them on the nights when I’m at meetings, doing his own laundry, and planting our garden, I know it has a profound impact. Our daily actions influence how they understand gender roles.
I have a lot of learning to do about how I play out a stereotypical mother/wife role. Some of my best teachers are friends who are in same-sex or queer partnerships. They are able to think more clearly about what it means to step outside the stereotypical gender roles of parenting and household tasks. I appreciate their perspectives.
Adding “they,” a gender-neutral pronoun, every time my kids say “he” or “she”
Already at five and eight my kids have picked up society’s norms of two genders only, evidenced by their exclusive use of he/she pronouns in their play. It is important for kids (and adults) to know there are many ways of expressing gender. It is also important for our kids to see and respect the people in our life who do not use he and she pronouns. Even if it doesn’t click until later I make sure to consistently highlight the fact that not everyone identifies as a boy or girl and there are boundless gender expressions.
Reading “Rad American Women from A-Z” and other books that counter gender stereotypes
The kids really and truly love this book. It opens their minds to all of the amazing things that people can do. It is an excellent way to teach intersectional (class, race, gender, ability, religion) history, too.
Letting my kids be just who they are
It is hard for me to watch the extremely gendered gunplay and wrestling that happens around my house (as you’ve read in my previous blogpost). Yet, that is what my kids love to do. I’m doing my best to get out of the way and to not put my gendered understanding and judgements onto their play, while still keeping an open conversation about that play when it crosses boundaries. I teach them about consent, no harm, and cooperation in the midst of all this roughhousing.
Do I still have a lot of work to do at reversing the cultural narrative that is strong in my beliefs and actions? YES! And am I willing to keep working on it? YES! I know that many of you are, too. That’s what gives me hope. While patriarchy still has an obvious and painful hold on this earth, we are raising kids who will challenge that oppressive system, because they won’t be invested in it. They will know a whole other way of being and living and interacting with each other and the earth. Busting through the gender box is one piece of that.
Check out the previous blog post on gender by Anna Mullany. It has amazing resources and questions for all of us parents who are doing this important work of loving our kids exactly as they are.