Sunday, January 27, 2013

How Dare They Tell Me I Cannot Be A Princess?

When our daughter was young, I was the stay-at-home parent, taking on the stereotypically female roles of cooking, house keeping, and grocery shopping, while also engaging in such stereotypically male things as yard work, building things with power tools, and being a sports fan. Having been educated as a behaviorist, I simply assumed that my daughter, raised in this way, with parents assuming non-traditional roles, would grow up without having internalized many of the gender role ideas of former generations. In fact, I was quite confident she was more likely to be what we used to call a "tomboy" than anything else. I strived to make sure she had both cars and dolls, avoiding such extremities as Barbies. On a day-to-day basis I tried to keep her attire gender neutral and, in fact, took it as a sort of compliment when strangers admired my "little boy."

Upstairs in our loft, girls were playing castle, surrounding themselves with dolls, stuffed animals and purses. When I asked them if I could play I was told I would have to be a prince or a king.

Before she was 3-years-old she had rejected her overalls, telling me firmly, "Girls wear dresses." When I pressed her about it, pointing out that, in fact, the majority of girls and women in our lives wore pants, she simply said, "You're a boy. You don't know about girls." Before long she began agitating for long hair, while adding crowns and tiaras to her daily repertoire, something she only gave up when she hit kindergarten in her K-12 school where dresses (and tiaras) weren't the style of the older girls, and therefore not the style of the younger, although long hair remains the standard.

I don't know if I failed her or not in all of this, but she is still "all girl" on the outside. That's where the stereotypical girl ends, however: this young woman, from this father's perspective, is a complex, one-of-a-kind human being who seems to feel free to embrace and reject gender roles, at least those of which she is aware (there always remains the issue of the gender roles to which we all unconsciously adhere). She doesn't seem to feel trapped by them, which, I think is the lion's share of the goal.

Under the loft, a pair of boys, pretended to be plumbers, repairing damaged pipes.

As a teacher, then, I see this same pattern coming at me in waves year-after-year, as the 2-year-old girls adopt the frilly dresses, while the boys don the yellow construction-worker helmets. As for me, I horse around with gender roles, pretending to be a princess or joining a game as the mommy, but the kids aren't buying it, laughing at me or sometimes even angrily telling me, "You can't be a girl, you're a boy." Some even command me to "stop!" as if the whole idea is too unsettling to contemplate.

And here I am a big, mature adult who thinks he knows himself, who can even predict how the children will react, yet who still feels a pang of rebellion, a flash of anger, each time the children tell me what I can and cannot do. How dare they tell me that I cannot be a princess?

I know I always open myself up when I write about gender. The last time I did the words "chauvinistic" and "misogynistic" were thrown back at me. But, you know, it's an unavoidable subject when you're a preschool teacher engaged in a reflective practice. I suppose some people read what I write and feel like I'm trying to tell them or their daughters or sons what to do based upon their gender. Believe me, I understand; I don't like that any more than you do.

Tomorrow I plan to write about gender again, this time about some new developments regarding boys and guns.

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Faigie said...

I think this is great because most liberals love to push the feminist agenda on kids today when it is really very natural that boys want to do boy things and girls girl things. There was an article in the Time magazine years ago showing how kids actually are wired that way and do not choose gender related activities and dresses because we as a conservative bunch push them on our kids.

Kerry said...

My friend and I were happily convinced that we were raising our 3-year-olds in a "gender-neutral" way--her son had a doll house, my daughter had trucks and tools--and then we took them to the local children's museum. They ran back to the "playhouse" area at once--where my daughter instantly began parading around in a pink feather boa, while her friend grabbed some pvc pipe and started hooking up the pipes. Like you, my friend and I were a bit dismayed--but there are some things you just can't change. We felt better once both kids dug into the "making things" room with glue guns and sticky tape.

Teacher Tom said...

@Faigie . . . I certainly do not see this as a liberal vs. conservative thing! I think you misunderstand when you accuse others of pushing a feminist agenda. Of course, there are gender TENDENCIES that appear to be biological, but this doesn't mean that we should then "force" children into certain roles simple based upon their genitals. My goal as a parent was not to create a gender-neutral child, but rather to make sure I wasn't compelling her into life choices simply based on her gender. I want children to know that they have choices. For instance, many girls may like to dress up like princesses, but some DO NOT. It would be wrong of me to make her seem like she was deficient or lacking because of this. I simply want girls and boys to know that they have the choice to do/feel/believe the way the fits them as individuals, not gender stereotypes.

You sound down on feminism. Feminism is simply the radical notion that women are people too, something about which both liberals and conservatives can certainly agree. =)

Jess64 said...

More and More as a teacher and as a parent I believe it is my role to offer as many choices about everything and let the children chose their own path. This is what I think you do so well. You keep role-modelling lots of options, and challenging the children to think outside their box, so they know there are lots of options. Thank you for sharing what you do so well.

Jeanne Zuech said...

Love this post, Tom. I see the same things as you, over the years, where gender tends to maintain its stereotype as natural play occurs. Of course, there are cross overs sometimes with girls being super heroes or boys being care takers - yet, weapon play still leans to boy play and princesses in castles still lean toward girl play.
My cheery quote for you today is from 2 four-year-old girls who completed a brightly colored, completely full easel painting and when asked about the adventure in their painting they replied "Oh! This is Captain Hook in a bloody cage!" I was sort of impressed at their bravery to already know of such things and sort of stunned, too!

Unknown said...

Just discovered your blog and love it! I was posting recently about dressing up, and how sad I felt when my son stopped choosing his favourite pink tutu at toddler group and started announcing pink was for girls. There is absolutely nothing wrong with children exploring gender in this way. Both my boys are BOYS, and I love them for it, but I was more than happy to let them go which ever way they went.

Mamabear said...

I was surprised when my daughter began to pick out her own clothes at age 2 while still in daycare. She was very committed to dresses and anything pink. And she was always surrounded by all the other little girls (younger than she) when she arrived and most began to emulate these fashions very quickly. We've always encouraged her with regard to gender neutral dress, toys, etc. but she is drawn to "girly" things.

janetlansbury said...

The image of you prancing about as a princess makes me smile...and wish I were one of your students. What fun it must be!
Thanks for another brilliant post, Tom.

Cave Momma said...

I love your posts on gender roles. I was a girl who did not like dolls and preferred a different kind of play instead of the typical "house" and baby stuff. So when my first born was a girl I naively thought that's how she would be. At first, she was and then she hit about 3 years old and the girl world took over. She loves her dresses and babies and plays house and pretends to get married. All of that. My son was born just a year after her and I tried to keep it very neutral but he very quickly reverted to "pink and dresses are only for girls". They do now understand (ages 5 and 4) that some boys like pink and some boys wear dresses and some girls only wear pants and don't like dolls but they still prefer their specific gender roles. It amazes me still but I understand and accept it. And when they each cross over every once in a while when playing just with each other? I adore it.

Amii said...

There are a few boys in my room, who put on dresses and tutus the second they come in and a few girls who are obsessed by fire man sam!

Christine Natale said...

May I share my take on the subject?

Susan (Cait's mom) said...

Thank you so much for sharing this experience of yours. I'd like to add this thought to spur a conversation: Allowing acceptance and embracing children and adults who feel they do not entirely fit into one gender's role or another as assigned to them from our culture is so important in our early childhood field. It has become a great concern of mine since I have seen many young children and adult peers of min who feel they do not fit and then are ostracized for voicing or acting upon their instinct. I feel sad reading your blog today because if a child or even an adult who witnessed this felt they didn't fit into the gender the culture in your classroom they could suffer because of these strong reactions.