The Blog

"Don't Kill Your Own Spiders...."

How are we bringing up our daughters? Do we pass on gender expectations and stereotypes even when we believe in equality?

How are we bringing up our daughters? Do we pass on gender expectations and stereotypes even when we believe in equality?

Before my second child was born we found out the baby was a girl. We already had a son aged two, and I remember feeling fortunate to have "one of each".

Shirley Chisholm said, "The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, 'It's a girl.'"

How true that was. I admit I revelled completely in the cute, pink baby blankets and pretty baby accessories for a baby girl. I imagined the pretty dresses she would wear and how we would be able to enjoy lots of special mum/daughter times as she grew older.

She is five now and things are far from how I imagined them. Her wardrobe is full of tracksuits and boys jumpers; the only girl shoes she has are her school ones. When we shop for clothes she will only look in the boys' department and the two dresses she owns were given to her as presents. Her bedroom is awash with Lego and Power Rangers and at birthdays and Christmas I have to kindly ask people not to buy her anything pink because it actually upsets her!

"Oh she's just a tomboy..she'll grow out of it", people say. So much so, I have come to loathe the term "tomboy" and I get irritated that I have to justify her choices. She is who she is. She doesn't need the label "tomboy" as if it's something different or just a phase that she will outgrow. The truth is, I'm proud of her. I'm proud that she doesn't feel the need to conform.

Self esteem, confidence and a positive body image are all I want for my children. It is irrelevant what she wears and what games she enjoys playing. There is a campaign which believes that all children are affected by the "pinkification" of childhood. When you start to look into the products, media and marketing of products for children there is a virtual tsunami of sexist stereotypes.

How do most of us feel about this? Is it just a harmless, accepted norm? Isn't pink just a colour? Brighton Councillor, Sven Rufus recently wrote to Halfords about their marketing of children's bicycles. All the girls' bikes were pink and were described as "sweet as cupcakes", whereas the boys were encouraged to "charge through the jungle". A local newspaper ran the story and there were over 113 readers' comments, all of which were derogatory about this Councillor, basically calling him a "loony Green" and saying this was a non-issue. In a readers' poll 73% said girls like pink, 23% said that it is conditioning through marketing.

Personally, I think it is wrong to pigeonhole children according to gender stereotypes, but there is enough choice out there for parents to buy toys and clothes suitable for both sexes without stereotyping. That doesn't mean we should stop the debate, however.

Our example as parents is probably more important though. Gender stereotyping in the household probably impacts more on our children. Daddy is the boss. Mummy does the housework. Daddy is the provider. Mummy is the carer. Daddy fixes things.

I was shocked the other day when we were discussing something and one of my daughter's friends said her Dad would never cry. I asked her why she thought that and she looked at me incredulously and said, "Because he's my Daddy!" In her mind men are still the tough guys who are always in control. Personally, I find this more of a concern than a girl who chooses to wear tracksuits all the time.

Our family, like many others, isn't really like that. We are equal partners at work, Daddy does the cooking at home because he is better at it (think Ria in Butterflies..), Mummy fixes things because Daddy is not very good at it (think Frank Spencer..) and household chores are shared among everyone because it is our home and we all want it to be clean and tidy. It's probably not always an equal distribution but when one person is doing too much they certainly make it known!

As a young teenager I used to attend an evangelical church. One of the books I was given was "A Handbook for Followers of Jesus". I always remember it because the author's name is rather unusual, Winkey Pratney. I read those pages over and over again because they infuriated me! His advice to girls basically came down to four things.

"1. If you are smart, don't show it off. No brother wants to feel like Charlie Brown...he is supposed to be the leader.

2. Don't gab. Sister, here is a secret. If you want something to talk about, ask him what he thinks. Learn what it means to build a man with admiration.

3. Be fragile. Let him be the strong man. Him Tarzan! You Jane! ...It is not just how you look; it is an attitude. Don't go around killing your own spiders...Generate a dependence, a little-girl look.

4. Dress and look like a woman. And that woman must be all girl and all lady. Stay away from the tough-as-nails look."

Dear old Winkey! His advice fell on deaf ears with me and my husband is petrified of spiders anyway, so I'm the one who has to displace them into the garden.

As for five year old Lily, well, I just let her "be", even if deep down I do wish she would wear something other than a boy's tracksuit sometimes. I must just remember not to say she's "beautiful" though; the only acceptable adjective for her is "cool" apparently. Now that really is quite cool.