My son was barely a week old when I took him to a work gathering dressed in a cute little hungry caterpillar outfit (see photo). The guy I was chatting away to seemed to be slightly uncomfortable when he explained, ‘it’s difficult because you didn’t colour code the baby’. It took me a while to work out what he meant. Should I have been in a matching outfit? I do like the hungry caterpillar after all, but I’ve never seen it in adult size clothing. Then it clicked. Gender stereotypes. My son wasn’t in pink or blue, therefore he didn’t know if this little bundle of joy was a boy or a girl. But surely that didn’t matter? I mean, how on earth could it matter? He was six days old.
Oh, how wrong I was.
When my son was less than 24 hours old, and still in the hospital, the gender stereotypes started and I learnt about how ‘different’ he was because he was a boy. Apparently, being a boy meant he would be harder to breastfeed. I was struggling with the whole latching on thing and in my sleep deprived craziness I assumed this was a ‘fact’, a strange fact that I didn’t understand but surely a fact if someone official was telling me this. I’ve since realised that as my son didn’t use his genitals during breastfeeding I don’t think that interfered with his struggle to breastfeed.
Overtime it’s become apparent that people want my child colour coded so they know how to treat him. Without the colour coding they are often at a loss as to what to say and how to interpret his behaviour. If my child had been in blue then this man would have known to make a joke about him eyeing up the girls across the room when his eyes flickered. Instead, without this, he didn’t know how to interpret my son’s grip on his finger – was there a girly softness to her skin, or the strong manly grip of a baby boy? Gender stereotypes can tell us all about a child’s personality it seems.
It hasn’t got better as he’s grown. My son faces
gender stereotypes sexist drivel most days. Don’t get me wrong, I know girls and women bear the brunt of sexism in the UK, from physical abuse to workplace discrimination. But that’s my whole issue; the two are inextricably linked. If you’re going colour code my child so you know how to treat him and then limit his opportunity to be a caring, equality-loving boy who can play with whatever he likes, then really you’re telling me that the sexism that girls and women experience on a daily basis doesn’t really matter either. If you want to push my son in to being a ‘big boy’ and ‘man up’ and hide his feelings, how will he be emotionally literate as an adult?
At barely six months old he shovelled some dirt in his mouth – apparently because he was a boy. The baby girls in the group weren’t into eating the dirt because it would mess up their clothes. I’m not even going to comment on the craziness of that idea. I often just end up keeping quiet because I’m not even sure where to begin with such mind-boggling statements.
As he’s got older all the comments about him being such a boy have notched up a gear or two. Obviously he loves cars, balls, climbing and wrestling – or so says almost everyone we meet. One occasion when he tried to kiss his friend and fell on top of him the adults around all chimed in to say he was such a boy with his love of wrestling. My son had no idea what wrestling was, he just wanted a kiss.
I’m sure it all sounds harmless enough on the face of it. It’s not like people are telling him he must never be a good caring father, or that all girls should be image obsessed, and a little bit of aggression didn’t harm anyone. Or are they? From where I’m standing that’s exactly what he is hearing. It’s a very simple, age appropriate message but it comes across loud and clear. It scares me that he may slowly, but surely, be learning not to show his affection through kisses and cuddles but through (play) fighting. Not because he was born with that as an innate part of his identity but because he’s gently but consistently, been encouraged into that throughout his formative years.
When people tell me my son will love all the toy cars at their house they aren’t saying it because they know my son loves cars, he’s not really in to them more than any other toy, they are just assuming he will love them. They never think to mention the dolls, or dressing up toys they have. He loves dolls and building blocks. His interests are diverse, his interests don’t yet know what he’s supposed to like. He especially loves those dolls that cry – they merge his two current obsessions – babies and crying – he’s intrigued by both. I worry that slowly these interests will get narrowed to a few. I worry that through this encouragement of “boys’ toys”, he’ll forget what fun he used to have with his dolls. Or maybe, even worse, he will learn that such toys are not acceptable and he will learn to hide these interests, lest he be bullied.
That is the saddest part of all this – that the children are listening to these comments constantly muttered around them. Over time, they too come to associate certain traits with a specific gender. Apparently by the age of three, children can tell you what toys are for girls/ boys, and by four they can tell you what things boys/ girls do. I don’t know at what age they become so convinced by this association that they mock children who blur these lines, but I imagine it’s not far behind.
Sometimes these gender stereotypes can become an easy get out clause. My son can be quite rambunctious. Many times this behaviour is met with comments of, ‘oh typical boy’. Whilst it doesn’t sit right with me to think it’s all about his genitals (again), I do find myself relaxing a little. These three little words let me feel it’s not my fault that he’s ‘misbehaving’, they let me feel a little less worried if I don’t have the energy to teach him to be less pushy/pully/snatchy that day. It makes me feel that he (and therefore I) are under less scrutiny to behave (deal with his behaviour). Hell, if people are going to give him some additional leeway because he’s a boy then a part of me (mainly the exhausted mum part) would really like to grab this leeway with both hands and let him run riot whilst I roll my eyes at the ceiling and say ‘bloody boys, huh’. But if I’m thinking that, then what’s he internalising as acceptable behaviour from all these little comments?
I hear many parents insist that their child does conform to the gender stereotypes and that’s just who they are. Maybe that’s true. But perhaps we should ask why. Stereotypes develop for different reasons – many boyhood stereotypes just reflect what society want boys to be like, so can we really be so sure they aren’t being pushed that way? A slow but consistent gentle shove since the day they were born? I can see that happening to my son and I try so hard to avoid it. Are there genuinely no other traits your child has that don’t fit into some rigid gender stereotype? Perhaps you just haven’t noticed, or have (subconsciously) overlooked them? After all, it doesn’t fit with what you have been told day in day out about how a girl/ boy should behave. And it’s unlikely others (nursery, friends, family etc) will feedback on those other traits so it becomes pretty easy to overlook them and eventually pretty easy for your child to do the same.
Maybe if we stopped colour coding our children we could learn not to treat them as pinks and blues. And maybe, just maybe, if we could just let them do their thing, and have similar expectations of them, then we might surprise ourselves with a generation of adults who don’t fulfil our human-made gender stereotypes and treat men and women equally. That is something I for one would love to see.