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Inborn, Huh?


Daughters of feminists won’t put on jeans, or that precious construction boot Mama found cute. Ugly shoes, they refuse. How come?—Nancy White, “Daughters of Feminists”

I am not a gender extremist when it comes to parenting. I’m pretty sure of this.

But then there are times when I’m not so sure. Like when I find myself staring at an indignant 4-year-old who asks me why I dressed my daughter in “boy clothes” (which I had just thought of as casual, won’t-show-the-dirt clothes). Or when I find myself talking my young nephew into letting my daughter color a page of his cars coloring book instead of his sister’s princesses one, even though she’s already forgotten that she asked for cars.

Or when the fourth mother in a week says, in earshot of my daughter, that her son is so energetic and independent and just loves trucks and cars and motorcycles because, of course, he’s a boy, and it really does seem that boys are different after all, doesn’t it? and I feel compelled to jump in and vigorously defend my daughter’s absolute love of all things vehicular.

I sound silly to myself. “No really, my girl loves trucks. Lemme ‘splain how much . . .”

It’s true. I don’t think I’d say it if it weren’t. She brightens up at the arrival of motorcycles so loud they are physically painful to me, and uses every strategy she can think of to persuade us that she is, in fact, big enough to drive the car. From fire trucks to bicycles to the golf carts at the Altamont Fairgrounds, wheels have, so far, been a nearly lifelong obsession. This is, no doubt, because we live on a busy street next to a firehouse.

It may not last. She may lose interest for something “feminine” just like I lost interest in chess and took up dance. Not being a big fan of the internal combustion engine, I won’t actually mind in the slightest.

Still, I don’t think it’s actually silly to want that to be a choice on her part, not something that she subconsciously does because some large slice of the world has told her it’s what she needs to do to be a good girl.

I feel a bit ’70s retro worrying about this stuff. It’s true that my daughter isn’t going to run into a lot of people who tell her things like she should pretend to be not smart so the boys will like her, or that she can be nurse but not a doctor. It’s more subtle things that are communicated now—assumptions rather than direct instructions, things about showing emotions, wanting to get dirty, being reckless or loud or caring or sensitive, liking trucks or dress up.

It’s less prescriptive. And it even seems to me that the people who espouse gender determinist views do so a little defensively, with an implied, “We know we’re not supposed to say this, but . . .”

Sorry, but I’m going old-school on this one: Yeah, I think you shouldn’t say it. At least not in the kids’ earshot. Now that I have a toddler, I’m acutely aware that she and her cohort are listening and assimilating everything we say, whether it’s directed at them or not.

I don’t feel the need to defend the proposition that boys and girls are exactly the same, with chromosomes and hormones and anatomy making no difference at all. Still, it’s clear if you’ve met more than a few young kids who been allowed to make to their own choices that supposedly gender-linked traits are at most a matter of a continuum with trends, not an on/off switch. So constantly reinforcing that “boys like these things and girls like these things,” and “boys don’t cry,” and “girls are more cautious,” and on and on, are not just neutral observations about the world. They will in fact enter toddler brains as literal, universal descriptions of how the world is and should be and will keep many kids from developing the interests or habits that would be natural to them.

Why not leave open the possibilities? Most parents I know would agree that when kids are young, you tell them they can have whatever career they want when they grow up—president, a pro-athlete, an astronaut—even if it’s statistically wildly unlikely. So I think it’s funny that I end up feeling shrill and defensive when I try to basically take the same approach with gender related stuff. After all, if these gender-linked interests and traits are actually deeply biologically embedded (as opposed to lightly correlated and mostly socially constructed, as I’m inclined to believe), then they certainly don’t need any reinforcement from us to manifest. Why harp on the inevitable?

I realize that I’m fighting a losing battle here. Gender stereotypes, like all manner of other stereotypes, are all around, and the bubble it would take to keep them out would be more limiting than anything their presence can inflict. I’ll keep my girls-can-like-trucks speech well oiled, and when/if my daughter switches to princesses, I’ll laugh, break out the dress-up bag, and carefully not tell all her younger female friends that I know they’ll follow suit eventually.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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