Because my niece stopped pretending to be a doctor

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My sister is an outspoken, strong, independent woman who I know has worked to empower her daughter in every way possible to move beyond gender stereotypes. And, in some ways, she is winning that uphill battle; however, a visit to Milwaukee’s Discovery World, a museum for children, 7 years ago still haunts me.

My niece must have been about 5. The museum has lots of hands on toys and activities. In one section, about how the body works, there are lab coats for children to wear while they pretend and while they learn. Little Niece happily donned hers. I cheerfully told her she looked great and could be a real doctor like our friend Dr. Die (this is a nickname that has to do with our friends real name and not anything that has happened in her professional life). She grinned back at me and said, “No, I am a nurse”. I argued. She was steadfast. She was a nurse. Well…. she was a nurse until she was a Doctor’s Assistant.

From another child, I would have been convinced that she was getting poor messaging from her parents about her gender’s role in this world. Only, I knew the parents and I knew that this is not what they were teaching or advocating. In fact, they actively pushed back against these stereotypes. Where was she getting it from?

With my own daughter, I am hyper-aware of all the negative messages she gets and all the gender specific roles she is silently (and not so silently) asked to perform. How can I, just one person, be louder than all those other voices around her?

Today a friend posted an article in The Atlantic called “Can a Kids’ Toy Bring More Women into Engineering“. It basically was talking about the idea that in the toy store, the boys aisle, all bedazzled in blue, is filled with chemistry sets, engineering games, and robotics; while the girls toy aisle, drenched in pink, is all about beauty and princesses.  In response, Goldie Blox has been created.  Or rather, it will be if they get enough financial backers through kick stock.

The product takes the approach of “meeting girls where they are at”.  In other words, incorporating all the gender messaging they have received (pink, that they are caregivers, using materials that are warm colors and soft to touch) but encourages them to build, thus supporting nascent engineering skills.

As a social worker, I have been indoctrinated in the importance of meeting the client where he or she is at.  This helps him or her grow. It makes intervention and success more possible.  It recognizes that all of us as individuals are shaped by the world around us and our personal experiences.

But coupling this with acceptance of gender messages in society aimed at children makes my stomach turn a little.

The Atlantic article explains:

Does it somehow undermine the goals of gender equality and girls’ empowerment to engage them in engineering by buying into and relying on so many stereotypes about girls in the first place? Cunningham says we need to keep in mind, by the time they’ve reached the age of five (the youngest age GoldieBlox is recommended for), many girls will already have well developed gender identities, and oftentimes that identity will be quite, for lack of a better word, girly. “How can we take the places that girls are and develop the same kinds of innovative problem-solving skills? … We’re very much based in, ‘what is the reality of the now?’ And how do you work with that? Are there small ways you can push the meter to bring in these kinds of skills?”

I get the argument.  And, frankly, I support the product.  I can’t just wish away a world of messaging because I don’t agree.  I can’t protect my daughter from all the things the world will teach her despite my efforts.  And, while I will continue to refuse to adhere to gender normity in choosing toys for her, in buying clothes for her, and in crafting activities; I want her to be able to find a social group that equally accepts that— mainstreaming engineering toys for girls, even if the toys are specifically pink to target girls, may not a bad first step.

What do you think?

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36 responses »

  1. Not sure if you ever got around to reading Cinderella Ate My Daughter, but in it, the author describes how her tomboyish girl suddenly began loving pink and princesses when she started school, so she’d fit in with the other girls. Maybe toys like this can help princesses find a passion for things other than pink and ponies :-)

  2. IDK…I think it is a little overhyped, the whole gender messaging thing. Describing a little girl as beautiful isn’t dooming her to a life of being in a stereotypical female job. I praise my daughter for all sorts of things. Not just her decidely feminine traits.

    It’s up to me as her parent to expose her to all sorts of things, and I try to. In reference to your blog, that’s true that there are girl aisles and boy aisles but neither gender is forbidden from entering the others aisle. If my daughter wants to play with dump trucks and Rescue Heroes, fine. No problem!

    • You are right. No one forbids kids from playing with toys in the other aisle… and many kids do… however, just the fact that the aisle exists, that there is this tacit understanding that girls and one ways and boys are another underlines the very point I am making. Our children are being bombarded by messages daily and it does shape them. Heck, it shapes us. How do we respond?

  3. I feel it more with the colors. As a mom to 2 boys and a girl, DD in between, it is amazing to me the amount of PINK clothing we have from DD. And how it is even cut differently (not neccesary IMO). I love the cute girly clothes but she wears her brothers hand me downs as well and some of those are her favorite. I wonder more about body images and clothing fit/style more than toys.

  4. I don’t like how it is hard to find plain, colourful clothing for toddler girls that isn’t covered in glitter, leopard print, or big embellishments like flowers, oversized bows, or slogans about shopping, etc. That seems to be what’s in style for little girls now though. My daughter is only one and just needs plain, comfortable clothing that can get dirty and go through the wash and dryer. If when she is older she prefers that glittery cheetah print stuff, no problem, but for now I find it difficult to dress her the way I would prefer to.

  5. I’m probably weird but I LIKE treating my girls like “girls” and my boy like a “boy”. The stereotypes don’t bother me and I like to treat them different bc they ARE different.

  6. I think people make way too big of a deal over the whole topic. My BIL, who is an extremely intellectual parenting type, denied his daughter’s request to be a princess for Halloween last year. She’s 4. Why? ” Because a princess has no role in life other than to be pretty.” They told her she *had* to choose to be a doctor. They then went to a party and lost their shit when someone told my niece, “what a cute nurse!”

    Insanity! I happen to think robbing a child of their imaginary play could be much more damaging than forcing gender neutral play.

    • Your brother in law might argue, as I would, that the world is limiting her imagination as it focuses her role to be subservient and teaches her to see herself as not smart, not to aspire to be a doctor, but aspire to be a nurse. We should teach our children to reach for the stars…. and, in my opinion, we should redirect them to think bigger… even if that sometimes means no princess costume.

  7. I have been told, “Your baby is beautiful” since day one. I now get, “What a beautiful little boy!” And he is. It’s as simple as that. Beauty has nothing to do with gender, IMO. Yes, he is “handsome” as well… But I call him all the time, “My beautiful little boy.”

    But, like pp, I have no issues with gender roles. I will not polish my sons nails so I can be an advocate for equality. He is a boy and will have lots of different interests, but he is still my little “man”.

  8. Whenever someone says “your daughter is so beautiful!” I always chime in “and so smart!” LOL. I do think that people can get carried away with it – I want both of my children to be whatever or whomever they want to be and don’t like to pressure them one way or the other. In the beginning, I was totally on the bandwagon about no Disney princesses or fairies or all of that jazz with my DD – but here we are, about to celebrate her 3rd birthday and it’s a “Pirates & Pixies” theme LOL. She can’t wait to wear her fairy wings. I think what bothers me most is the mass marketing of it all (especially Disney, Barbie, and any other cartoon character). I’m OK with her loving the color pink, but we had a helluva time trying to find just a plain pink bicycle for DD’s birthday present. I didn’t want a cartoon character on it, just a color and maybe a flower or two. (and before I get flamed, I don’t mind if she has one or two things with a Disney character on it – though we don’t have anything yet – I just don’t want to be drowning in the stuff! ANd also – this is her very first “gender specific” toy. Her tricycle is red and all other riding toys or big toys have been gender neutral on purpose. But she is so crazy about the color pink right now, I figure why not let her have this!)

    And as for DS, I told him yesterday he was beautiful and DH piped up “you mean handsome!” I was like NO – men can be beautiful too, inside and out! There’s nothing wrong with saying that. DH also got a little funny about DS playing with his sister’s dolls, but what in the world is wrong with him learning to be nuturing toward a baby? What is he supposed to do, drop kick it?

    I will say that raising one from each gender has been very interesting. It is amazing the things they gravitate to no matter how you try to raise them as “gender neutral” as possible. DD has a light blue room but is obsessed with the color pink. She is also VERY artistic and detail oriented. DS has been drawn to balls and anything with wheels ever since he could crawl. DD has a couple of matchbox cars that we gave her last year that she pays no attention to, but DS goes bananas with them -will push them around the house making a “vroom” sound. He is just more physical than she is. He’s also sooo much more loving and loves to cuddle. Not sure if that’s a gender thing at all, just wanted to throw that out there :-)

  9. I think people make too much of a big deal about it. Yes in schools it does seem as though girls are better in English and Social Studies and boys in Math and Science but I rocked in my Science classes. I will encourage my daughter to do well all around. I was also very into sports growing up but also did ballet. If there is something she likes I wouldn’t not give it to her or not let her do it because it was something considered boyish. She has two cousins and is exposed to all of their toys. As far as clothing, I like dresses and skirts but she looks just as cute in jeans and shorts. I like pink and purple much more than I like red and blue but if she wanted something in any of those colors she can have it. I do hate that there isn’t more things in black for girls.

    Her one cousin is almost 4 but when he was around 2 he really liked a doll that his dad got for him. My DH and his grandfather both threw a fit that a boy had a doll. I thought it was cute. He has turned out to be much more sensitive than his older brother so in that sense I think it was more personality than gender.

    With my daughter I want to tell her how awesome, pretty, intelligent, kind, beautiful and caring she is. I think she is all of those things and I’m not going to leave one out because I’m afraid she’ll think she’s pretty.

  10. The only thing that really bothers me is like pp said, the clothing selection. My girl likes to play in the mudd with her brother and some tonka trucks. She doesnt need frilly tutus and glitter and hearts and flowers. My daughter wears dresses and bows, but also jeans and a plain t shirt. I’ve bought white boys t shirts for her and she wears them beautifully. She plays with cars and leggos along with dolls and strollers. She helps me clean and she helps her dad work on his car.

    i tell both my dd and dss that they are beautiful. They are both smart, strong, funny, amazing kids. If dd wants to be a doctor or nurse thats fine, is she wants to do construction thats fine too. Same goes for dss.

  11. I don’t have a problem with people calling my DD cute or pretty. She still doesn’t have much hair so people call her a boy more than a girl. What I have a problem with is the “girl” toys that are just different shades of pink instead of being several bright colors like the “boy” one. I noticed it a lot when she was first born where all the rattles and hanging things from the car seat were just pink. I always bought the more colorful one just because babies need that distinction in color.

    I’m VERY worried about body image and self esteem and I’m teaching those around me to not talk about weight or looking a certain way around DD. she’ll get enough of that just living in the world. I, as her mom, don’t want her to ever hear me call myself fat or say if I could only change this or that. So I’m working on my own body image issues in hopes that I might change my way of thinking before she starts to pick up on it. Which will be really soon.

  12. I talk about my body around my 2 daughters and my son. I tell them that mommy used to be skinny and that they made me chubby.:) I laugh about it and don’t convey low self esteem because I don’t have it…that doesn’t mean that I love every part of my body. I don’t think it’s what u say but more the attitude u convey.

    • I agree that modeling attitude and how you convey messages is really important— however, they are not only getting messages from you. They are getting it from TV, school, friends, family. And, tied to body image, a lot of is has been shown to be quite powerful.

  13. I am not one of the people who refuses my daughter pink or doesn’t tell her she is beautiful. I think if you tell a child no, they will want something more. Honestly, this is a mistake my sister made. Also, I think body image is a growing issue, so I do tell my daughter she is beautiful.

    However, it continues to shock me as I see the world push her towards more “girly” things, colors and interactions.

    So, I make up stories about how her toys are neuroscientis and I sing I am a paleontologist (they might be giants) to her.

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  15. I try to take stranger’s comments in stride; how is a stranger who is observing my kids for a minute or less supposed to judge them on anything other than their behavior or physical appearance? It IS true that my kids are motherfucking ADORABLE. It’s also true that they are rowdy and love to hear me call their names over and over and over, even though they ignore it 90% of the time. I don’t take it as a gender bias, I take it as someone noticing my kids’ and commenting on their limited observation of them.

    This coming from a mom of a 3 year old boy who LOVES My Little Pony and asked for a play kitchen instead of a bike for his birthday.

    I DO think there is a problem when people try to force it on their kids. That boys MUST do or play with certain things or girls CAN’T do something because they’re girls. I remember being about 10 and my mom telling me I should keep my room cleaner because I’m a girl. I told her she shouldn’t be sexist. I totally got hit for that, LOL!

  16. In response to the blog, is it so bad to pretend to be a nurse? Would you also dissuade a little girl from pretending to be a teacher ( an equally female-oriented field)? My husband and I are both nurses and I don’t see that many doctors able to work shifts and still have a life outside of work. By encouraging our girls to be whatever they can dream, do we have to drive them towards typical male careers to make a point?

  17. My ODD at almost 3 is the most girlie girl you could ever meet. I always tell her she is pretty, smart and a terrific older sister. Because she is!

    She loves her frilly dress up dresses, fake plastic heals and taking care of her baby dolls. I cannot believe how many people are so down on girls being frilly girls..and make faces when I tell them my daughter loves princesses.

    Do I make faces when their boys get dirty playing with tonka trucks? NO!

    I guess the point of this is my ODD is girlie and I love her for it..my YDD doesn’t have preferences yet but girlie or tomboy it is fine with me.

    I don’t think being girlie will make her a blonde ditz later when she is grown up.

    Married, with two little girls, no pets.

  18. My boys are told they are handsome, gorgeous, beautiful, precious, momma’s angels, etc. And they are!!! I think people read too much into this whole gender message crap. My boys wear shorts and Ts and tennis shoes. They have dinosaurs and trains and trucks and teddy bears.. They play outside and get dirty. They are rough. Oh wait, the only difference in my boys and my niece is that she wears pink and usually has a bow in her hair. I’m not going to dress my boys in pink (though they do have some pink shirts) and bows and frilly stuff so I won’t send the wrong message that they can only be tough strong manly men (which I do hope they don’t grow up to be pansies who don’t want to get their hands dirty). I don’t think dressing a girl frilly and telling her she’s a princess will ‘doom’ her to a life of being barefoot and pregnant waiting on her husband hand and foot.

  19. Duckie wears tshirts, jeans, bows, and glittery or pink shoes. I make her just “girly” enough. She also has trucks and trains in her toy box. I’m not a “gender nazi” but I do like her to be exposed to as much as possible. I’m not a princess kind of person but if my daughter wants to do that, I will let her. If she turns out to be a butch lesbian, I’m not going to love her any less. I won’t force her to be girly, boyish or any where in the middle.

  20. I think that that gender prompting absolutely affects our children in negative ways. If you google “gender stereotype threat” there are SO many studies about it.

    For example, one study gave men and women a math test which controlled for their math education level (they’d all taken the same classes). The groups were mixed gender but randomly divided into two sets. The first group was simply given the test with no gender prompting, and the results showed that the men and women performed very similarly. The second group was given the test, and very simply told that the researchers were studying gender differences. With that incredibly simple prompt, the women in the second group performed on average 50-80% worse than the men.

    The bottom line is that research shows in leaps and bounds that gender messages absolutely do affect our lives and, in particular, limit men AND womens choices by repeatedly sending them the message that they are good for some things and bad at others.

    Now, as far as parenting goes, I’m not going to scold a stranger for calling my daughter beautiful nor am I going to forbid her from being a princess. That goes way too far IMO and takes a societal problem out on the children who have no control over it. BUT, I’m also going to do my best to talk to her about those stereotypes and address them head on instead of pretending that they don’t exist and don’t mean anything when in fact they will play a huge role in her life.

  21. This is really hard… I think I’m going to keep my hypothetical kids out of toystores (except for the ones with educational toys) — I think a set of wooden blocks can really go a long way. But I mean, there are things I did that were “girly” that also brought me so much joy… like ballet. And it has horrible body issues associated with it. But somehow it wasn’t that way for me. Now that I think about it, when I was little I used to pretend I was an airline stewardess (using that terminology and everything) and never a pilot… but that definitely did not mean anything indicative of the rest of my life :-) I think I just thought it would be cool to travel all over the world and I happened to spend MORE TIME seeing the stewardesses — nice pretty ladies on the plane — and not much of the pilots. Maybe the nurse is just more visible/friendly in her experiences. Doctors usually whisk into and out of the room without much consequence nowadays and I highly doubt that little girl watches ER. That’s just me being an optimist though.

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