I grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s, time of “I am Woman, Hear me Roar.” Boundaries were being broken down. Women were entering the professions in numbers and they could be admitted to almost any college. Even Vassar was admitting men. Girls could do whatever boys could. It was a great time for a girl to be growing up, a time of boundless possibilities.
One of the possibilities that feminists saw was the possibility of raising a different sort of child. The theory was that boys and girls were only different because of how they were raised. If we raised them the same, they’d turn out the same.
Fast forward to the late 1980’s when I had my older son. I joined a playgroup of, mostly, progressive, Unitarian, vegetarian, environmentally oriented mothers. I was the maverick since my kids ate meat and sugar and attended Mass, but our environmental orientation and our more laid back child-raising style helped us to fit in.
We all tried to raise our children in a non-sexist way. Given that we met in parks, and all the kids were active, most of the little boys and little girls showed up in overalls and sweatshirts. The kids all learned the basics, talking, walking, etc. at about the same time – well, except for my maverick son who rolled over and crawled late and talked and read early. The kids all got played with, snuggled, and no one ever said to do/don’t whatever because they were a girl/boy.
But then three hit, and that’s when everything seemed to diverge. I remember vividly realizing this at one of the first three-year-old birthday parties. The kids were all playing, and the moms, released by the independence of the three year olds from having to pay constant attention to them, were able to sit at the picnic table and talk. All of a sudden, I looked at what all the kids were doing. The little boys were mostly running around the yard playing pirates with swords, capes, plastic guns or gun-formed fingers. And all the little girls were sitting next to each other giggling and talking – some in dresses. Hannah Anderson low-key dresses, not frilly ones from the mall, but they were wearing dresses. Oh, and maverick son? He looked at the options, then went inside to get a building set, brought it out and built for the entire party. He skipped the whole-wheat/apple sauce/carrot cake cupcakes.
I still hadn’t totally learned, though. Fast forward another four years. I did have some dresses for my daughter when she was little, but she also looked cute in her hand-me-down overalls (with more girly shirts). But, by the time she turned three, the overalls were history. She decided she liked dresses, and that’s all she wanted to wear for years.
Now, I had been overjoyed to be able to wear jeans all the time when I started staying home with my older son. No more dresses for work! The part-time work that I’ve done since then could all be done without having to wear a dress – and, of course, teaching aerobics demands this! I was free from dresses, and I couldn’t understand why she wanted to wear them. But, I’m not all that pushy in general so I went along (and found some really cute, but not overly frilly dresses).
As time went on, and life got busier, non-sexist child raising wasn’t uppermost in my mind. The kids got interested in whatever they were interested in. My older son went through an active, battle-type phase; my daughter went through the “My Little Pony/Disney Princess” phase. For a while, she wanted to go through the Barbie aisle at Toys ‘R Us, and he would accompany us only if I led him through while he had his eyes shut. These things gradually ended, though. Overall, neither of them has been a stereotypical boy or girl. My daughter is more active than the stereotypical girl; my son is more artistic than the stereotypical boy. But, this is a result of the way we’ve encouraged their interests, not something we’ve pushed on them.
Interestingly enough, the thing that seems to have lasted the most from those playgroup enthusiasms is the environmental part. My older son wants to be an entomologist, and my daughter wants to be a marine biologist. Elder son still creates – the child who spent the entire party building just finished spending a few weeks sculpting Christmas presents for everyone (no malls for him!). The child who talked early now writes short stories. My daughter still likes dresses, though she says they’re harder to be active in so she doesn’t wear them that much. She learned how to read later than the average girl, but now she reads faster and more than the rest of us. They’ve learned, I think the most important lessons of feminism – that women and men can both be capable and do whatever they want, and that everyone is deserving of respect.
Fast forward again to this month. My younger son’s Christmas list consisted of action sets, Transformers, and Lego kits. His Christmas presents consisted of the same, plus a few books – which he wanted me to start reading aloud almost as soon as he opened them. His play with his friends involves complicated imaginary worlds and rules, and lots of battles. This time around, I don’t even bat an eye – unless they’re running with sticks. I know it’s part of being in early elementary school, and not necessarily an enthusiasm that’s going to last.
Some of our nieces are now in the Pony/Princess stage, and so, for Christmas, I went to the toy store and “pinked-out.” Even if the mother would rather not have someone going through the pony stage (and even if the father feels like gagging), I know that it’s just a phase. The little ponies will come, and the little ponies will go, and the parents will wonder how she grew up so fast.