Reject “girl things” and “boy things”. Sex organs don’t dictate nurturing or adventure

By: Anupreet Sandhu Bhamra

“Look mom, Kabir is pretending to be a mommy”, my then four-year old daughter pointed enthusiastically at her year-old brother, who lovingly pushed a doll stroller around the living room. He had carefully placed a toy baby in.

My first reaction: overwhelming love and my second: correcting my daughter. I told Mehar that little Kabir wasn’t pretending to be a mommy but to be a loving daddy. I reminded her how her own father plays that role. In short, age-appropriate words, I said: “Mommies and daddies both care for their children”.

She nodded. And let out another cry of joy as she saw Kabir pick up the “baby” and plant a kiss on its plastic cheek. “Look mommy, Kabir is kissing the baby just like daddy kisses me.”

I let out a sigh of relief. As any parent can relate, it is a constant battle to “correct” children. It is a struggle to maintain a balance between overly correcting them and ignoring their actions. Apart from a general world consensus on teaching kids the basic courtesies, there is a debate and a book on how to approach every other topic.

But teaching gender equality (read pink and blue) doesn’t require a debate. There are no “girl things” and “boy things” for little children. Period. The colour pink that has come to represent “girl things” like playing a princess all the time and colour blue that represents “boy things” like playing superheroes is creating a further divide in the patriarchal power imbalance between a man and a woman. Thanks to USA’s Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor for stopping by Sesame Street to educate that being a princess is not really a job.

This divide is so deeply embedded in our products that it is a constant battle to educate kids about its emptiness. There is no pink or blue. They are simply the colours of the same spectrum. And we need to allow our kids to pick a colour of their own liking.

I encourage both my children to pick their own. When my daughter Mehar was born the summer of 2007, my husband and I decided to get her a healthy mix of age-appropriate toys, not “gender-appropriate”. For me that term is a misnomer. Over the years, Mehar got a mix of toy babies, princesses, building blocks, play balls, stuffed animals and yes, cars. My husband ignored my instructions to buy small, soft play cars. Once he came back with a gigantic remote-controlled play truck for then two-year old Mehar. She delighted in taking her stuffed animals for a ride.

Mehar is now five-and-a-half and attends full-day kindergarten. She is a lovely, spirited child. She rarely walks in the house: always on her toes, she runs from room to room. She is always singing in joy, calling out to daddy, or me or to her little brother in a loud voice even for a simple conversation. As a friend remarked once, “She is a party in a box”. My evenings are spent asking her not to use loud voice indoors, to save it, God forbid, for a situation that can be dangerous (and explaining what dangerous means).

She loves to create stuff, her study nook is always piling high with paper crafts, and discarded shreds of paper; the tiny white table is shiny with glitter and glue projects. She loves to draw: her day at school, the movie she watched, daily conversations, everything finds an expression through her sketches.

She watches fairy tale movies but has a penchant for cartoon action flicks. One moment, she will be ‘riding’ around as a knight – a play bucket for a helmet, a towel paper roll for a sword, a sheet wrapped around for armour – on her rocking horse and the next hour, she will be wearing her toy princess crown, with the ‘armour’ transformed into a dress. One Halloween, she dressed as a princess and for the last one, she was Bat Girl.

Mehar dressed as Bat Girl for Halloween in 2012 (left) and as a princess the year before (right)

Mehar dressed as Bat Girl for Halloween in 2012 (left) and as a princess the year before (right)

I love her imagination, her creativity, carefree state of mind, the joy of just being herself and enjoying and savouring every moment. I admit, it gets a little challenging to steer her in regular life after some time, but I love the fact she has so much zest for life.

And I admire her soft nurturing side: she loves to fuss over her baby brother and is thrilled to have visitors with little ones.

Her little brother Kabir was born the day she turned three. Despite sharing their birth date, they are temperamentally different. Like all kids, they give us challenges in parenting, but we weren’t prepared for challenges Kabir threw at us.

His sharp mind works in overdrive. Mehar rarely gets into mischief, but Kabir is always creating mischief. We did what we never did with our daughter: installed three childproof security gates in the house. One gate cordons the laundry area, one guards my study and a five-meter wooden gate has been bolted into the walls to guard him from the gas fireplace and our big television (further protected from the impact of toy projectiles with a solid plastic sheet).

With Mehar, simply telling her that fireplace was hot and dangerous with elaborate scared facial expressions worked. Kabir just gave us a smirk. We thought the wooden gate would help. He defeated us soon. He grabbed his toy doctor box, put it upside-down, climbed on it, and voila, he was swinging over the security gate. I had to hide the box. He was all of 23 months then.

Kabir defeating our purpose of installing a security gate to guard the fireplace and TV. He used a toy box to climb and hop over the gate

Kabir defeating our purpose of installing a security gate to guard the fireplace and TV. He used a toy box to climb and hop over the gate

He has used “tools” from his toy collection to open turn and twist door locks and has perched his chair on top of a regular chair to try and open the security latch on the main door. All this when he had just turned two. Light on his feet, one doesn’t realize when he disappears quietly. One moment, he is playing next to you and the next; he is trying to loosen the grip of the security gates.

So after three security gates, endless childproof locks throughout the house, we keep an eye on him – constantly. As the main home-stay parent, it’s a challenge for me to leave him unattended even for a bathroom break. My dear daughter steps in for that purpose. She has instructions to yell if he manages to get into mischief before I can make it back.

But I love him just the way I love my daughter. I melt when he replies, “me too” to my “I love you” and giggles uncontrollably when I grab him from pulling stuff off the shelves. I love the way he makes my disappointment evaporate when he runs around laughing saying, “no mumma”, when I try to stop him from taking shots at side lamps with his toy trucks. It’s hard not to lose temper when he uses the strength of his arms to launch his toy rocket ship into the air that eventually misfires and drives holes into walls but his innocent and loving hugs after time-out make me forget the perforated walls in the house.

My friends say, “Oh, he is just being a boy”; I reject that. That is drilling gender differences into the impressionable minds of our children. And what exactly “being a boy” means? Climbing walls? Opening latches? Spirit of adventure? How is this experience tied to one’s sexual organs?

Kabir loves books, cars and babies. He is enthusiastic about life and loves to experiment. His mischief is actually a sharp mind that can analyze situations and find a way out of them. He is not aggressive or violent, he doesn’t hit anyone. He has a strong frame for his age (he is now two-and-a-half) and doesn’t realize his strength that inadvertently causes damage when all he is trying to do is “launch” a rocket ship.

The only toy he takes to bed with him is his favourite yellow and green truck. It is not the most comfortable toy to sleep with, but he doesn’t relent. I simply remove it after he sleeps.

Despite causing mischief and vrooming his car toys all day long, he has a soft side to himself, that of a nurturer. Of all the toys scattered on the living room floor, there is only one kind he doesn’t throw, or use as a projectile: toy babies. I am amazed at how gentle he is with them. He caresses a toy baby, as if it was real, feeds it with his own sipper, wraps it in a sheet and puts it to bed – in his own bunk.

Kabir enjoying "being a daddy" at big sister's kindergarten class (left) and sleeping with his favourite bedtime toy - a truck

Kabir enjoying “being a daddy” at big sister’s kindergarten class (left) and sleeping with his favourite bedtime toy – a truck (right)

I recognize his potential and I love his nurturing side. By classifying what he does with a toy baby, as a “mommy thing” is a dangerous proposition. By doing so, I will tell my son that it is wrong and unacceptable for a man to be the nurturer and at the same time, I will tell my daughter that a woman’s identity is limited to being the nurturer.

That will discourage her spirited attitude, especially outdoors, where she climbs trees and pick flowers. Not a single day goes by when she doesn’t come back home with muddy clothes. She loves to venture outdoors and every school recess; she is collecting rocks, and leaves with her knees in the wet grass or mud. Her backpack is always teaming with the dirty, heavy collection, and it is not unusual to find a rock or two in her pants pockets.

“She is such a tomboy,” said one of my friends and I politely disagreed. Years ago, when people referred to me as one, I took pride in the term. I thought it was cool to do “boy things”. As a thinking adult, I recognized, being adventurous and spirited is not a “boy thing”. We all have different passions and ways of life. There are no “boy things” or “girl things” for little children. Society classifies our behaviour in constructed gender roles and today, as a mother of two young children; I strongly reject this socially-constructed ill concept. It only undermines our children’s true potential. It makes our girls feel limited in the role of nurturers and stifles our boys’ natural role as nurtures.

We socially program our boys to feel ashamed of playing with dolls and babies and then we complain, when as adults, most reject their roles of nurturers – as loving fathers.

When we give an environment free of gender-bias to our kids, they themselves reject the floating gender stereotypes. It happened with me while watching the 3D version of The Lion King in a movie theatre with Mehar. Her gaze fixed on the screen, munching popcorn, she innocently inquired in her usual loud voice, “Mom, when will I be the King?”

People sitting in the row ahead broke into giggles and I hugged her and said, “Anytime love, anytime, you have the potential to scale any height.” I was proud she identified with a role that had power attached to it and not with a usual submissive side-role assigned to a woman.

At the same time, I don’t want her to reject her future role of a mother or my son to reject his ambitious, adventurous side and focus only on his nurturing side. I want them both to live a balanced life, where being a nurturer comes naturally, just the way nature intended. And what they do with their lives professionally will be best done when it’ll stem from the spirited-self within.



Categories: Gender Equality, Parenting

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

27 replies

  1. Anu, very very nicely put down in the words. I can very well relate to it, and always believed in that there’s no such “boy thing” or “girl thing” and practice that with my 2 kids as well (though I never had such thoughts or did it intentionally, it just came to me naturally). Your words rightly express what I always thought of. And in our case, Puru is very naughty but Pia is few steps ahead of him but we never stop her from being naughty and a fighter (which she does with all of her strength). At times, she grabs stuff from Puru and it’s Puru who’s running around the house crying.

    *I like those looks of Kabir in the collage you have posted, while he is jumping over the security gate :-)

    • So good to hear that. It disheartens me to see people mocking little boys playing with dolls and the same complaining why some men aren’t good parents. Puru and Pia are blessed to have a father like you; they will blossom. On Kabir’s expressions: other than when he is sleeping, it’s hard to capture him without a “naughty” expression.

  2. Very well written , pass this blog to a leading paper in India hopefully some Indian parents will learn from this

  3. I have no problem with what you have written, but do you think there is value in being “masculine” or “feminine”? Or is our gender purely physical and therefore has nothing to do with our identity at all?

    • You make a valid point Tim. In my opinion, gender is purely physical and certain needs that can be classified as “masculine” and “feminine” arise out of the physical aspect. Take for example, feminine hygiene products, pregnancy, lactation. And likewise for men, shaving creams et al.
      For a person’s “spirit”, or “self” or “soul”, gender has no role. If a person wants to climb the Everest, and that person happens to be a woman, her menstrual cycle is a situation that can be dealt with products. It doesn’t limit her. It doesn’t stop her.
      By telling our little girls that their physical body defines their lives is completely being ignorant of their potential and likewise, by telling boys “not to cry like a girl” stifles their emotional side.
      Tell me something, when you read a beautiful poem, do you think of the author’s reproductive organs? A man and woman’s perspective could be different but perspectives differ between two men as well. The physical needs could be different, but our emotional and spiritual needs don’t stem from physiology.

      • I think we agree about a lot, but we’re still not on the same page I don’t think. For example, of course simply being female doesn’t stop a person from climbing Everest, and I believe that boys and men should not be emasculated for expressing emotion, especially crying. But I don’t think the solution is to throw out gender identity, except for physical gender, altogether.

        I found your question about authors quite odd. When I’m reading a poem or book, of course I don’t think about the author’s penis or vagina, that’s ridiculous. But I certainly think about whether the author is male or female, and that influences how I understand and relate to the piece. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, because our gender is part of who we are, a gift given by God. Gender identity beyond the physical was not created by society, but it is constructed and abused by society. I can still be proud of being a man, and my wife and daughter can be proud of being feminine, without being limited or restricted by the way society thinks men and women should be.

      • Yes Tim. More or less we are talking in the same sphere. I am not suggesting to throw out gender identity but the social construction of the “abuse” – as you rightly put it. This issue has lots of layers and it depends which framework we are viewing it in. I suggest you also read my earlier blog post on gender and culture identity. So happy to have this dialogue with a man :-) Keep the conversation going.

        http://sandhubhamra.com/2012/07/29/the-city-of-surrey-banding-together-against-domestic-violence-or-against-indian-culture/

        • OK, I’m glad that we agree then. I understand what you mean about the issue having different layers and frameworks and I can see where you’re coming from in the article. We’ll definitely keep discussing!

          On Thu, Jan 31, 2013 at 3:55 PM, Sandhu Bhamra wrote:

          > ** > Sandhu Bhamra commented: “Yes Tim. More or less we are talking in the > same sphere. I am not suggesting to throw out gender identity but the > social construction of the “abuse” – as you rightly put it. This issue has > lots of layers and it depends which framework we are viewing it in” >

  4. Anu, lovely post..loved reading the whole of it..till the end..me, being a mother of 3 boys would always prefer the ” softer” side inculcated in them…seeing them more passionate towards life..which I have seen many of us term feminine..I totally agree..there is no value in being masculine and feminine..it’s only character building..thanks for such a lovely post..keep writing..
    Love and warm wishes,

    Sudha

  5. I had asked my friend Gurcharan Basran, a retired sociology Prof, if he could comment. I had not told him anything about the author, but will this morning when I see him. I thought I share his views with all. A key distinction he makes at the outset is “sex identification is biological but gender is socailly constructed.” Mohan.

    Hi Mohan:

    I enjoyed reading this blog. It is written by some one who is educated, well informed and familiar with research in the area of child rearing. Sex identification is biological but gender is socially constructed. If we raise our kids according to the conclusion of this blog, we will help them to realize their potentialities to the fullest extent. People are not born with blue and pink definitions, they learn these concepts through the process of socialization.

    We ( Indians ) have made progress in the material sense but we have a long way to go in the non material world. We have to change our values, norms, traditions, religions, attitudes and behavior. We should have faith in science, and try to b skeptical, analytical and must not accept things on the basis of faith. But we should be aware that science is a work in progress. It is not carved in stone. This kind of attitude will liberate us from constraints that are usually self imposed. If we can achieve this, we will be comfortable in our own skin and lead a life of contentment, compassion and satisfaction.

    This is enough for the day.—- Gurcharn.

  6. Very well expressed Anu.a year back my 11 and 9 year old boys expressed the desire to play with dolls.i bought them both the ones they liked.everyone at home was kind of finding it funny but then I explained that the way girls enjoy cricket and cars,the same way boys can like dolls.honestly when we were young me n my brother played with all toys together without labelling them.i am shocked when mothers tell there boy’s don’t cry like girls.were does this come from.anyone can be hurt and would want to cry.its so badly drilled in us.

    • Kudos to you Sunayana. Yes, gender is socially constructed within us, research proves it as well. Mothers like you are raising emotionally well-balanced boys. They will certainly grow up to be loving husbands and fathers. Thanks for reading and participating in the dialogue.

  7. Loved this! Lots of discussion on the radio lately re: gender stereotypes.

    Surinder

  8. I love this article! Almost two years ago, my son (“C”) slept over at my nephew (“A”)’s house for A’s birthday. A’s younger sister, “M”, often acts out on her brother’s birthday, because she likes to be the center of attention. At the party in question, after A fell asleep, M talked her friend and my son into helping her paint A’s toes pink. A woke the next morning, embarrassed and furious. I got a call.

    I borrowed a bottle of neon ink nail polish, and went to confront my son. I intended to demand that he paint his own toes pink, unless he could apologize to A so convincingly that A told me it wasn’t necessary. I explained to C that he had committed three offenses: 1) messing with a person while they slept, 2) “emasculating” his cousin, by helping to put “girly” pink paint on his toes (and on his birthday, no less), and 3) allowing himself to be led by M, when everyone knows she is notorious for misbehaving on her brother’s birthday.

    But.. as I was describing the “emasculation”, there was a voice in the back of my mind shouting “HEY, WAIT… this needs more thought! Something here doesn’t add up!” C did apologize to A, the polish stayed in my pocket.

    A week later, I was out with some guy friends. We were goofing off, making bets on movie trivia. I believed that I had an impossible question, a sure winner…. so I spoke up. Someone said “What are the stakes?”.. and my hand found the bottle in my pocket. I said “I bet that you can’t provide the correct answer. The loser must paint their toes hot pink, and wear it for a week. Loser must wear it publicly… take photos in public… post the photos to their Facebook and any online dating profiles… and wear open-toe sandals everywhere but work. If caught cheating, the loser must instead pay $100 to the winner.”

    I lost the bet. Since I specified it, I felt it would be less “manly” for me to cheat the bet than to carry it out. So, I painted my toes for the first time, and followed all the rules to the letter.

    The funny thing was…. I have always hated my feet. I work in heavy construction, where I must wear steel-toe workboots all day. They are poorly ventilated, and they breed nastiness on my toes. I was literally the guy who brings old sneakers to the beach to go in the lake. I was SHOCKED to discover that, with a little color, suddenly my feet were much less embarrassing than before. In fact, even with hot pink, they looked pretty good. I spent that week thinking about why I had never considered painting my toenails before. I realized that mostly, because I had never seen a man wearing nail color, it had never occurred to me that I could. I realized that I had just assumed that men weren’t wearing it because it was “feminine” – and that in reality, it is simply, just paint. There is no inherent gender in a bottle of paint, the only gender it could have is what society imposes on it – with no valid justification for doing so.

    Suddenly, I saw that I had lived my whole life blindly, thoughtlessly, conforming to an assumption and perpetuating a gender stereotype – following a narrow little dress code that served no legitimate social purpose. I saw the thing that your article explains: that things don’t really have gender, and that imposing gender onto them serves only to control people and limit their potential. I discovered that my masculinity is not defined by the opinions of strangers, or by my ability to dress exactly like my peer group, and it is not threatened by a few drops of paint. In fact, in this society, a man wearing nail color demonstrates boldness, confidence, independence, self-determination, and a bit of defiance – and to me, these are more “masculine” traits than the cowardly submission to social assumptions which I was practicing before.

    By the end of that week, I couldn’t wait to remove that pink polish… because I was dying to try a new color I had bought! My toes have been painted ever since, and within three months, I had begun wearing it on my hands as well.

    • Steve – what a brilliant insight you had through your own experience and introspection. Kudos to you for understanding life’s mystery and beauty at the same time. Thanks for sharing your story. I loved reading it. Your kids are blessed to have you in their lives.

      • Thank you!

        Do you want to hear something funny? There is a meme that I often see on Twitter, which says that “In Italy, a man may be arrested for wearing a skirt”. The funny part is that in Rome, in 399 A.D., Emperor Honorius made a law declaring that anyone, man or woman, could be arrested and exiled for wearing pants! (Codex Theodosianus 14:2-3)

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