By Nathan Whitlock
My 10-year-old son draws skulls on everything: backpacks, books, walls, car windows. He recently spent a whole afternoon creating the “Death Castle,” a Playmobil castle covered in dozens of little figures — human and animal — suffering violent deaths.
My five-year-old daughter, on the other hand, has a whole “series” of rainbow drawings and enjoys tucking her many stuffed animals and dolls into a bed she has made for them.
For the record, their mother and I, right from the start, tried to mitigate the worst excesses of gender stereotyping and the like. My son’s rooms have always been filled with books and stuffed animals, and, if we can’t always limit the sheer number of dolls in my daughter’s room (thanks to our in-laws), we at least make sure she is always well supplied with soccer balls and pirate toys. And I’ve had the conversations with both of them that most parents will find all too familiar — the ones where you patiently explain that, no, girls are not always dainty or required to carry babies around all the time, and no, boys are not always the strongest or automatically in charge.
But while we had our own thoughts about kids and gender roles, what was perhaps most interesting was discovering the attitudes of other people toward the whole idea as we raised our children. My daughter, for her part, never seems to get a gift from an older relative that doesn’t have Barbie or Tinkerbell emblazoned on it, or isn’t simply awash with pink. Then there are those people who feel we are insufficiently progressive or gender-blind in our parenting. When my son was three years old, he was often babysat by a friend of ours named Sara*. Sara was a bit of a stereotype herself: an outspoken lesbian poet and performance artist. Not surprisingly, Sara saw ideas of gender roles and gender identification as being wholly and fundamentally political. She once borrowed a handful of my son’s construction toys for an art exhibit she was putting together. When I saw the photographic result — little diggers and road pavers rolling violently over the body of a naked woman — I had to wonder: was this directed at us? Was she suggesting that, because we allow our son to play with “boy” toys, we were contributing to the ongoing oppression of women? That the sensitive little guy with the stuffed bunny in his bed was being raised to be yet one more macho, frat-boy meathead? However, Sara also took a series of photographs of my son around the same time laughing and wearing a feather boa and getting his toenails painted. And those are some of my favourite shots of him ever.
I’ve also watched other parents tip over into what we felt was just needlessly excessive territory when it came to smashing gender stereotypes. A friend of mine, a full-time political activist, once complained that her daughter just loved reading books about princesses. “Doesn’t she see what a regressive image that is?” the friend asked.
What my friend was gnashing her teeth over is what kids simply do: investigate and play with gender roles. If they are lucky enough, they get a decade or so (or even longer, if possible) to move back and forth until they find out roughly where on the spectrum they belong. Obviously, we are very privileged to even worry about such issues — in some parts of the world, the concept of gender roles has not budged in decades, if not centuries, and there is no room allowed for playing around. Indeed, in many places, strict gender roles are a matter of life and death.
So while I want my son and daughter to feel their respective genders as lightly as possible, and to feel free to act as boyish or as girly as they like, I’m also not all that concerned right now. Of the two, my girl is by far the more extroverted, aggressive, self-confident and, well, corrupt. (Last year she scandalized my son’s sensibilities by using the word “douchebag” — she just wanted to know what it meant.) When watching a nature show on TV, my son will coo over the sight of baby animals of all kinds, whereas my daughter usually gets restless until something (say, a crocodile or a lion) starts viciously eating something else. My son would also never hurt a fly, while my daughter, even when she was a toddler, would often pick up a spider or large ant from the ground and, without even batting an eyelash, crush it between her fingers.
Fighting every manifestation of a gender stereotype is pointless, and can have the effect of making kids self-conscious about their own identities. Both of my kids have shown that, whatever the biological and cultural pull of those traditional roles, they have little trouble shucking them when needed.
And, as a father, I like the idea of a bug-killing princess and a book-reading pirate.
Nathan Whitlock is the Books for Young People editor at Quill and Quire magazine and the author of A Week of This: A Novel in Seven Days (ECW Press). He lives in Toronto with his two children.