I don’t think I’m doing a great job of teaching my daughter what American society will generally expect of her as a ‘girl.’ She’s very little, I know, but I don’t think I say the words “pretty” or “I like your outfit” often enough to really begin her education in “girliness.” Granted, now that she has more hair and people can more readily identify her as a girl, others are helping to fill in those blanks. When we’re out in public, she gets plenty of compliments on her looks and her accessories. Hmm.
When she was younger and most often identified as a boy, the narrative toward her from strangers was different. Yes, some of it still centered on appearance, but plenty of it was also about how dextrous she was or how active she was. Maybe I’m reading too much into the comments of passers by, but viewing some “gender confusion” on the part of other grown ups was an interesting by-product of her early life. Since we all want to make sense of the world around us, I understand why folks are quick to assign certain attributes to kids (and other people) based solely on their perceived gender. I just don’t want to pave the way for others to put too many gender-based expectations on my kid.
Just like other labels that we slap on our kids, our thoughts on gender can be constricting, self-fulfilling and detrimental. Labeling our sons as “all boy” indicates to them and to us that not only are they expected to act in a manner that doesn’t show weakness, we also think they’re a bit unruly or rough and tumble. Kids can be rough and tumble without having to assign those attributes to the umbrella-term of “boyishness.” Likewise, calling girls tomboys simply because they explore, get dirty and (ahem) can be rough and tumble lets them know that they are doing something out of the ordinary (and perhaps distasteful) for girls.
It is impossible to avoid all genderizing words and I’m not advocating that we work to erase any and all differences between boys and girls. But I am careful to temper my expectations for her future as a ‘girl’ and eventually as a woman. I have no visions of braiding her hair or teaching her how to apply makeup or of her being a Girl Scout or going to the prom in a dress or being a beautiful bride or a pregnant mother-to-be. I do have visions of spending time with her, playing games, taking walks, reading, having adventures, talking with her, etc. But I’m going to continue to push back against molding her into a model of American girlhood. Not only because, as we see, girls and women are being conditioned to apologize more, stay quiet in meetings, and challenge themselves less. I guess the place for me to begin, as she approaches her second birthday, is to not make her look like the little girl section of Target. No matter whether this seems to be a contrary, counter-cultural move on my part.
Nowhere can this contrariness be seen more clearly than when an adult comments on a “boyfriend” of hers or how she’ll be a heartbreaker when she’s older. I admit to having made folks uncomfortable by quickly saying that she may, after all, be gay. I’m not simply trying to shut them up or shut them down, but I do want to allow her as much room to be herself as I can. If she grows up only hearing about how she’s going to have romantic relationships with boys one day, then how will she feel if she realizes that that isn’t for her? Or if she doesn’t feel like she’s a girl at all? I want to make any of these possibilities as natural as I can. However trite it sounds, I want her to know that I will accept any version of her throughout her life, even if <gasp!> she does want to wear high heels and dye her hair (though I’m sure we’ll have some talks about societal pressures and expectations if that happens).
No subtle parenting choices on my part are going to change the overlying thought that girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice and boys are made of snips (?) and snails and puppy dog tails. I guess I’ll just try to make her a stew of sugar, spice and snails. And work against genderizing her too much in her little life.