I grew up watching Free To Be You and Me. For those who aren't familiar, it was a bunch of vignettes, most of which were about gender roles, with a very clear message that men and women, boys and girls, can all do any and everything equally. It had all kinds of stars, including Mel Brooks and Michael Jackson. There is a song sung by former football player Rosey Grier telling girls and boys that "It's Alright to Cry." There are bits where moms and dads both do every kind of job. There's even "William Wants a Doll," sung by Alan Alda, all about a boy who is great at sports and loves them, but what he really wants is a doll, and what happens when his grandmother gets him one.
Now, whether it was strictly based on this, or, more likely, in addition to lots of other influences, I never really cared much about gender stereotypes growing up. I played with with My Little Ponies and Strawberry Shortcake dolls, but I would just as likely go out and help my brother dig pits and blow up his GI Joe figurines with firecrackers (likely the beginning of my love of fire, but that's a different story). I would climb trees wearing pantyhose and make-up. I was good at math and science and was encouraged to become an engineer. Even though I chose a different path, it's still a male-dominated field. I asked many a guy out rather than waiting on him. I even broke the big taboo and asked Phil to marry me--he wasn't getting around to it fast enough. Needless to say, I have never felt terribly boxed in by gender roles.
As a result, I'm a big fan of letting kids be kids, regardless of what the gender
stereotypes tell me they "should" be doing. If little boys want
their toenails painted because mom and sister are doing it, that's
perfectly fine. If girls want to play with blocks or tear things up or just play in the dirt,
that's fine too.
Given that background, I figured I would have no difficulty sharing these values with my daughter. I dressed her in all kinds of colors and patterns, not caring whether they were "girl" or "boy" colors. I even got indignant that "neutral" colors only seemed available up to 3-6 month clothes. It seemed as though people might buy clothes up to that size without knowing the gender, but after that, surely you knew the gender and wanted all pink for your daughter. Even when I could find other colors, they were still frilly. Now, don't get me wrong. I love frilly and I love dressing my daughter up in frilly. But I also love to put her in a pair of jeans and a polo shirt. She's also adorable dressed in plain bib overalls and a white onesie underneath. She's so active and rough and tumble (quite a surprise given her condition, but again, I digress). I just wish I didn't have to go to the "boys" section to get these items.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I went to purchase a new toy for my daughter and found myself thinking that something was too boyish. Too boyish? After letting her play with the construction trucks and plastic toolset in the church nursery? After buying her books about dragons? After spending hours wondering what her first Lego set will be? I think I experienced a case of mental whiplash just by having the thought. But there is was. Even as open as I am to breaking gender stereotypes, I am not immune. I can only imagine how much more difficult it is for those who have only had the roles reinforced, rather than challenged. On the bright side, I noticed that I had the thought. And I only had it on the inside! Still, because I had the thought, I am going to try and be more careful in the future. This is not to say that I feel the need to overcompensate by buying every "boy" toy I can think of. I buy toys I think Lil' Bit will like playing with based on what she currently likes. One of her current favorites is a bright orange flashlight. (She loves it so much, we discussed dressing her up like a Jedi for Halloween, but I still want to go with the ladybug). She also loves her toy stroller, though. She loves blocks and animals and books, but you can see her eyes light up when I show her cute clothes. All in all, I guess we're doing pretty good on the letting her pick what she likes thing. Whew!
And, if I need a refresher, I have the Free To Be . . . DVD handy. I've already played it for Lil' Bit once. Turns out, she's a big fan of Rosie! Who knew?