Navigating Cultural & Societal Gender Roles As A Parent
Hello Dear Marshmallow Peeps!
It’s March, which means it is officially Women’s History Month! This means that this month’s publication will focus on gender issues, things that parents confront raising their daughters and sons in this upside down time we are currently living in. Normally my editor’s letter is rather brief, but because of the multi-faceted aspects of this topic I wanted to take advantage of the varied perspectives and experiences that Maki and I bring to raising children of different genders. So this post will serve double duty! It will be an editor’s letter to you, albeit a hefty one, and also a post unto itself, one that is co-authored by Maki and I. Read on my faithful Marshmallow Peeps…
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Parenting from the Xx side
Like the rest of you, I am confronted with a grim news cycle daily. With case after case of sexual harassment and violence being exposed, it is hard not to look at the sheer number of cases and be saddened by what it says about our society as a whole. These publicly exposed cases of sexual misconduct are an undeniable reminder that our girls and women are perpetually confronted by people and institutions trying to usurp their power in a myriad of ways, some overt and some far more subtle (but no less nefarious). As a mother, and as a woman living in today’s world, this both angers and unnerves me. I find myself constantly questioning and re-examining the messaging pointed at women and children. I try to mitigate the effects of those messages on my daughter, especially the ways in which they can impact how she views herself.
This “gender-biased message mitigation” is challenging, and has always been challenging, even during my daughter’s early years where I presumably had the most direct ability to influence her. Back then, my husband and I were very purposeful (but not militant) about exposing her to things in an overall gender neutral way. Even the daycare she attended seemed mindful in regards to gender biases. Rather than have a bunch of baby dolls and trucks available for each respective gender tribe with which to play, the children were exposed to play experiences that appealed to kids of their age group regardless of their gender. There were sensory tables filled with homemade flubber, art easels with which to paint and draw, and themed group projects like “restaurant” and “firefighters” which allowed the kids to learn about the greater world around them without making gender role assumptions.
However, even with all of this in place, there was the influence of my daughter’s toddler peers which we could obviously not control. Much to my chagrin, my daughter was indoctrinated into the world of pink and princesses through her best friend at the time, a kid who must have been sponsored by the Disney corporation. Every day this child was decked out over the top, head-to-toe, in sparkly Disney princess glam gear. The influence of this child has had an astonishingly irreversible impact on my daughter’s tastes. Once introduced to the “bedazzled” shine of girl-world, my daughter has never looked back and still, to this day, loves all things pink, floral, and sparkly.
To be clear, I don’t have anything against the color pink, or flowers, or objects that sparkle. I am, though, against what has been attached to these things, the societal “rules” about how girls should look, act, and behave. It is a slippery slope. These “rules” start to tamp down girls from an early age by showing them “examples” of other girls, like the Disney Princesses as role models. It subtly molds their thinking about how they should view themselves in relation to these “examples” provided in the media. I recognize that it molded my thinking when I was a kid, and it has taken me a long time to open up my critical thinking skills in regards to gender issues. I’ve even had to re-evaluate some things that I define as seminal parts of my childhood, things that I still love to this day that I want to share with my daughter.
One of these re-evaluation moments happened while watching the ’80s tween movie classic, The Goonies with my husband and daughter during “Family Movie Night.” First, I have to say that I love this film and have a lot of sentimental attachments to it, largely because it fulfills a childhood fantasy of going on an amazing and dangerous adventure where the kids save the day, and the bumbling adults remain clueless throughout the bulk of the film. Seems like a great film to share with your kid, one that is chock full of empowering messages for them to glean, right?
Well, if you are me, then not so fast. At multiple moments in the film, I felt the need to pause the movie to point out to my eye-rolling ten-year-old, that the two main girl characters (who co-exist among the five main boy characters) are, at different points in the film, written to be more panicky and more passive than the boys. I found myself getting annoyed with how the girl characters fell into the “needing to be rescued” or “needing to be taken care of” tropes. Early in the film, the “pretty and popular” girl is subjected to inappropriate treatment from one of the entitled male characters. After their on-screen interaction, I pointed out to my daughter that the girl should not have put up with being treated that way by the “stuck-up rich boy.” Yes, sometimes it is an admittedly an insufferable experience to watch a film with me. But, in my defense, how can I not point out behaviors that I do not want my daughter witnessing and then adopting?
I try to mitigate this as much as possible, but, again, misogyny is in the water, and it can be subtle in its presentations, as noted above. But luckily, there are many, many good examples of women in roles of power and success in places that have been typically male dominated. Our US Olympic Women’s Hockey team won gold a few weeks ago. Last year, my daughter and I marched in support of women’s rights at one of the Women’s Marches that was happening simultaneously all over the world. There is the #metoo and #timesup movements that continue to advocate for women’s rights and victims of sexual harassment and violence. This demand for equality between the sexes is happening very visibly, in the public eye, but I have noticed that things have been shifting slowly to broader gender “roles” (for lack of a better word) for some time. I notice it most directly in the variety and quality of characters in children’s literature of the past 20 years. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series blazed the trail in many ways, but one less noted way is how she respectfully treats gender issues in her books, giving power to both its male and female characters in unexpected places. These positive examples equally influence our children and embolden them to push the current gender limits.
This, to me, is all very heartening and leaves me hopeful for the future. Yes, things are currently tense and full of conflict, but this conflict will hopefully give rise to some positive change. The current crop of people involved in breaking social and cultural barriers are tapping into the collective power of individual decisions. Our children’s generation is and will continue to redefine many societal norms and open up our collective way of thinking so they don’t have to feel confined by society’s framing of what certain genders can and can’t do. And as a result, we can collectively take heart that we have had a measure of success in raising our future leaders who boldly cross the confines of current gender boundaries. Our job is to continue to shepherd them through their efforts. ~ Anouck
Parenting from the Xy side
I hate to admit this, but here it goes. Back when I became pregnant and didn’t yet know the baby’s gender, I’d hoped for a boy. It wasn’t a strong preference, but it was definitely rooted in my desire to avoid having to teach a girl “the hard things.” About how she needs to be vigilant about her physical and mental safety. About how society will try to undermine her success because of her gender. About all the mixed messages she’ll receive with regards to her body. Much to my relief, my baby’s penis was the first thing revealed at our 20-week ultrasound.
I’ve had many opportunities to rethink my misguided relief since then. Suffice it to say, even before the age of #metoo, I’ve known that it wouldn’t be enough to teach boys not to send dick pics over the phone. As allegations mounted against many prominent media figures, I wasn’t in the least bit surprised, because I didn’t know any woman who hadn’t been sexually harassed. Am I doing enough to keep my son from becoming a predator, or more realistically, casually pressure a girl into having sex? How do I teach him to be one of the good guys who calls out friends when they act inappropriately?
As Anouck has mentioned in her letter, misogyny is in the water, and so too is toxic masculinity. I hate that term, but it’s an accurate description of a culture that stigmatizes boys who show emotion, telling them“Boys don’t cry” or to “Tough it out.” In turn, aggressive behavior is just “Boys being boys.”
Following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, comedian Michael Ian Black wrote an excellent op-ed for New York Times on the subject of how we are failing our boys. He begins with a joke about how little it takes to emasculate a male friend: when at a restaurant, ask what he’ll be ordering, and ordering on his behalf when the waitress takes their order. It’s a joke, but it really isn’t. He also points out that emotion in boys is still viewed as sensitive and stigmatizing them as feminine. “And so the man who feels lost but wishes to preserve his fully masculine self has only two choices: withdrawal or rage.”
When it came time for my son to attend kindergarten, I was very concerned for how sensitive he was. Would he be ostracized for crying too easily? Would his teacher help him? Fortunately, we live in a progressive area where educators and school staff are nurturing and vigilant over their students’ emotional well-being. Kids are also taught an anti-bullying program that seems to work quite well. On the other hand, grade school and early childhood education are largely the realm of women, meaning there aren’t as many men boys could look to as a model of male behavior. My son’s school has been trying to address this by recruiting more dads and male family members to get involved in volunteering at the school.
I see signs of positive change, though, even in our pop culture. Harry Potter, still popular among boys and girls, is a brave and caring hero. Harry’s friend Ron is another positive male role model, a loyal friend to both Harry and Hermione. In a more recent example, Black Panther featured a superhero, T’Challa, who is a thoughtful king with quiet mannerisms. T’Challa is surrounded by intelligent women who are capable in war and a science lab. He not only trusts these women, but relies on them to help him. Even the villain Erik Killmonger is portrayed in a sympathetic manner. Given Erik’s tragic personal history of growing up fatherless and being locked out of his homeland, he is the boy who raged. Even in the face of Erik’s desire for the world to burn, T’Challa attempts to right the wrong that made Erik rage at the world. Isn’t this the type of leader we need—one who can sympathize and embrace people who’ve been burned by the world’s ills?
If the students of Stoneman Douglas High School are any indication, teenagers are ahead of the curve. Watching them passionately discuss gun control has been the most moving and inspiring thing I’ve seen in a long time. We’re doing something right. Let’s keep doing it.~ Maki
If you have a sensitive boy who is struggling, I found the book The Strong, Sensitive Boy by Ted Zeff very helpful. He approaches sensitivity as a strength, not a weakness. Interviews with sensitive men from around the world on what helped them provide multiple perspective. In some cultures, sensitive boys are chosen for leadership positions because they are attuned to the needs of others. Dr. Zeff also gives pointers on how parents can support a sensitive boy, inside and outside the home. Highly recommended!