This week we went to an early Christmas party, with lots of other children and parents. A good time was had by all, and Santa even put in a pre-Christmas visit (question from a child to Santa: ‘why are you giving us presents now - aren’t you meant to come on Christmas Eve?’). But, after the party food had been devoured and the wine-glasses drained, a couple of (admittedly minor) instances stuck in my mind. The first involved the distribution of coloured bottles of soapy bubble mixture, and the second involved taking turns in the vegetable garden.
In the first instance, the hostess of the party had thoughtfully laid in a store of bottles of bubble mixture with which the children - ranging in ages from 15 months to seven years - could amuse themselves. The mixture in each bottle was the same, the only difference was the colour of the plastic bottle that contained it, which were green, blue, red, purple and pink. Most of the parents had given their children the first bottle that came to hand out of the bag, although one had made a conscious effort to find a pink bottle for her ‘pink-obsessed’ daughter. We had given our girl a pink bottle because it was the nearest to hand, but shortly rescued it off her when it became apparent her still-developing fine motor skills meant that she couldn’t easily blow a bubble while simultaneously holding it. As she was content to chase the bubbles blown by others, we put the bottle back on the table for an older, more co-ordinated, child to enjoy.
Shortly afterwards, such a child - a boy - appeared at the table looking for some bubble mixture of his very own. Unaware that there was a bag containing other bottles, we pointed out the pink bottle on the table and said he could have that one. Just as he reached out for it, one of the mothers (not his) actively prevented him from taking it, loudly asking where the bag was so that she could give the boy another bottle that wasn’t pink. At which point, a few other people, who had been milling around but until then hadn’t taken a blind bit of notice of the colour of the bottles, chimed in with jokey remarks such as ‘what were you thinking?’ (aimed at the boy) and ‘we can’t be having that’. They then took it upon themselves to help the woman find the boy a suitably masculine blue bottle of bubbles. It all happened in a low-key and light-hearted way, but nonetheless this minor incident can be considered an example of the shaming and policing of gender.
The boy was three.
Afterwards, this incident got me thinking about other (also minor) instances that I’ve witnessed in the past weeks and months that also amount to gender policing. A boy who pushed my girl out of the way and was not reprimanded by his parent, who had clearly seen what happened. A girl being told to stand back from the slide at the playground, when a boy pushed in, to keep her ‘out of harm’s way.’ A boy being told not to cry, when he fell over and started wailing, clearly in some distress. A girl being praised for being cute. A boy being congratulated for ‘taking charge’. A girl admonished for being ‘bossy’.
All of these instances are small. But small instances multiply. They may not amount to much in themselves, but constant repetition of such minor instances solidifies how children understand acceptable and unacceptable gender behaviour in a given place and time. That goes for both the children that such opprobrium or approval is directed at, and those who are merely bystanders. Pink-bubblegate wasn’t directed at my girl, for example, but being in the room when it occurred, she surely registered that something unusual was going on.
As my baby gets older, I am increasingly sensitised to the small moments that amount to bricks in the wall of stereotypically gendered behaviour. I acknowledge that we can’t escape gendered cultural scripts, and I am conscious that I don’t want to denigrate conventionally feminine things - hence giving her a pink bottle of bubbles in the first place, because pink is a colour just like any other with no intrinsic gender value (or so I keep telling myself through gritted teeth). This becomes even more important if we accept the findings of neuroscientists that nurture - i.e. what we learn - effectively becomes nature - i.e. what we are. Neuroscientist Lise Eliot comments:
Think about language. Babies are born ready to absorb the sounds and grammar and intonation of any language, but then the brain wires itself up to only perceive and produce a specific language. After puberty, it's possible to learn another language, but it's far more difficult. I think of gender differences similarly: the ones that exist become amplified by the two different cultures that boys and girls are immersed in from birth. That contributes to the way their emotional and cognitive circuits get wired. (Eliot quoted in the Guardian)
To return to the scene of the family Christmas party and the second instance I mentioned. This one was also low-key and involved the children taking turns to run up and down a narrow piece of sacking in the middle of the vege garden (the strangest things seem to float their boats, huh?) After being told not to step in the actual vege patch, which contained newly-planted lettuces that would not benefit from the nurture of enthusiastic toddlers, the children - a boy and our girl - ran up to the opposite ends of the sacking and then started running towards each other, like cliched lovers in a romantic comedy ... or jumbo jets on a collision course. At some point, both children would meet in the middle with no room to pass. Would one of them yield or would mediation be required?
I have to confess that my first impulse was to pull our girl out of the way and let the boy pass. A split-second later, my feminist consciousness kicked in and I checked myself. After all, I reasoned, why should it automatically be the girl who gives way? Wouldn’t that just be a brick in the wall of the idea that girls (and women) should defer to boys (and men)? Not to mention that it might also communicate to the boy that his will takes precedence over a girl’s. Instead, I chose not to intervene to see what the children did when they met in the middle.
What I saw provided a salutary lesson.
Toe to toe, the children looked at each other, looked down at their feet, looked around at the sacking and the garden. Who, if anyone, would prevail? After thoughtful consideration, and without any discernible words, they then turned on their sides and passed each other back to back. They both remained on the sacking with only perhaps a couple of toes venturing into the garden, and the little lettuces remained intact. I felt proud of both of them for their equitable - and apparently telepathic - approach to problem-solving. It meant neither of them lost face, both got want they wanted, and neither was ‘forced’ to learn a lesson about gendered behaviour from an interfering adult (i.e. me!)
It also made me realise that unless I am conscious about the meaning of my actions then, all in all, I have the potential to be just another brick in the wall.