Parenting and Gender Roles: My Observations and Failings
I’ve been a parent for nine years, and I’ve yet to read a single parenting book. I know I should. Parenting is complicated. Like most parents, I’ve read articles here and there, latching on to catchy titles that scroll through my social media feed. But, I find that each article written by parents, or parenting experts, only adds to the complexities of child rearing instead of taking them away. For every opinion there is an opposing opinion. Both of which are backed up by facts, statistics, and personal experiences. Most contain valid points from each side which only muddy the waters instead of clearing them. The articles I like best are like this one I’m writing now–the “in the trenches” essays. The I screwed up and I hope you can relate while refraining from judging me further essays.
Almost every single person has something to say on the “how-tos” of parenting. Parenting skills are judged from within your own circle of family and friends to complete strangers watching you maneuver your brood through a grocery store. Add to this judging a constant barrage of unsolicited advice: He’s too old for a pacifier. What do you mean you haven’t started potty training her yet? If you don’t get control of him now, you’ll regret it when he’s a teenager.
I’ve found in my personal experience, it’s much easier to learn by living through the day to day struggles with the expectations that there will be mistakes. My friends and I laugh every time we see a Luvs Diaper commercial which shows an uptight mother dealing with her first child and then later a much more relaxed version of the same mom dealing with her second. The happier mom is the experienced mom. This is some serious truth.
However, only basic concerns are shown in these commercials. After all, if you want to sell a product you can’t add in the hot topics sure to start a heated debate on the diaper and wipes aisle of the grocery store. No, we prefer to nod and giggle about hand sanitizer and breastfeeding in public because believe it or not, those are the easy issues.
I have one of each, a girl and a boy. Each presents their own joys and challenges personality wise, but I try to raise them with the same core principles in mind. I don’t want to play into the boys-will-be-boys and girls-will-be-girls mindsets, but we don’t live in a bubble. I’m not the only influence on my children. The media, grandparents, teachers, peers, and complete strangers all get a piece of them from time to time. And unfortunately, they also get a piece of me.
Recently, I had a couple of situations with my son that led me to believe I may talk the talk better than I walk it. I don’t want to think about some of the more difficult terms I’m faced with, like gender policing and gender nonconformity, as sometimes I’m not even sure I’m using the terms correctly. Yet, they are there in the day-to-day activities and deserve more than a passing thought.
My son loves all things superheroes, and I’m proud he plays with his Wonder Woman as much as his Batman. I pat my back that I’ve created an atmosphere where he feels comfortable enough in his creative play to role play as a girl, a boy, or an alien being if he chooses. He’s only coming up on the age of three, so the outside forces have yet to influence him on the difference between the “boy” toys and the “girl” toys. I’m sure in his young mind a superhero is a superhero regardless of gender.
If you’ve been anywhere in the vicinity of a television lately, you’ll have noticed Barbie has dipped into the superhero realm with her own Super Sparkle movie and line of toys. For a few months, every children’s network show was preceded by one of the commercials advertising the movie, and my son wanted it. Every time we passed a Redbox, he asked me to check. I had no problem with this. My husband had no problem with this. In our house girls are strong, smart, and valued.
Yet, I’m ashamed to say when there was another person standing at the Redbox, I didn’t allow my son to say the movie name out loud. I called it “that” movie.
The more I thought about my behavior, the more I realized I’d failed my son. I honestly didn’t care if my son wanted to watch a Barbie movie. I didn’t care if he wanted to put on a pink cape and pretend to be Super Sparkle himself. But I did care how a stranger would treat my son if we did this out in public. If my son didn’t conform to his gender role of only wanting to be a male superhero, how would those outside my home treat him? How would he handle outside behavior towards him? No parent wants their child to be ridiculed, bullied, or rejected because of their choice not to gender police. I’m not saying this is what would definitely happen, just that it could. I was a kid once too, and I distinctly remember the hateful words used to attack boys who did not conform.
It wasn’t long before I was presented with a situation in which I could redeem my failings. Or so I thought. On mother’s day, I painted my mom’s and my daughter’s nails a bright, hot pink. My son asked me to paint his nails, too. After a momentary pause, I offered him clear nail polish. He insisted on the hot pink. My daughter quickly told him boys don’t wear pink. (Remember, my son is still guided by his wants and doesn’t care too much for other’s rationalizations of what should be yet.) He again insisted on the hot pink and without any further argument, I painted all his fingernails.
I didn’t mean for my son to turn into a social experiment, but I became curious about how others would act with a little boy and his bright pink nails. They were so pink, it was impossible for people not to notice. I knew how I would act. I’d planned my non-committal shrug and comment of “yep, they’re pink” which would not be followed by any further explanation. The expected responses came. The most common being the uncomfortable laugh followed by a sympathetic look. A little girl squawked and pointed at him while yelling for her other friends to look. I didn’t falter in my practiced shrug and statement, and they quickly lost interest. The most surprising, alarming, and thought provoking was the comment “Well, it’s okay at this age.”
And therein I found the biggest failing of all in the unplanned experiment. His age. If a three year old boy asks to watch a Barbie movie or paint his nails hot pink, it is assumed it is because he doesn’t know any better. If he did it as an eleven year old, I predict the reactions toward my son would’ve been far different. I also predict that my noncommittal shrug and throw away statement would’ve been different as well. These thoughts had always been in the back of my mind. This person had said what I’d thought at some point.
The hot pink polish has since worn off, and I’m glad because all of this has left me with an uncomfortable conclusion. No matter how evolved I believe I am, no matter the lesson I want to teach my children about always being true to themselves, my insecurities toward society’s perception of them and my own parenting skills as related to gender roles, remain on the surface. I still allow other people and the fear of my child’s rejection to control me and my actions. It’s a struggle every single day. A struggle I hope my children master when they become adults.