Polishing my own gender bias.

June 30, 2010

I am not going to write about fitness today, because I am having a little moral dilemma at our house.  It’s Wednesday, which means that I am spending the day with my 2 older children, Natalie and Max.  The baby is safe and sound in the arms of his AWESOME babysitter, staying on track with his usual routine (I’m a big fan of establishing routines, which means that most people, or at least my patient husband, think I’m a Schedule Tyrant.  I accept this.)

These Wednesdays have been very good for me, for my kids.  Instead of taking an extended vacation at some point over the summer, which is very challenging with the work that I do, I opted to take one day off each week until school starts up again.  I also decided to devote the day to Natalie and Max, since, as you would expect, the baby commands a lot of my time and attention, the little dictator that he is.  This way, we can have some more Big Kid fun without having to wait for me to  attend to the baby’s bottomless pit of needs.  He gets me 6 days per week, these guys get one all to themselves.  We’ve been exploring some of the overlooked pleasures of living in Iowa City, and I feel like even this one day per week has re-energized me in so very many ways.

We’re waiting for the sun to get up higher in the sky, and then we’re going to Kent Park to splash in the “lake” there.  I’ve had to reassure Natalie that there are no sharks.  (I’ve also had to remind myself that there is no possible way a shark could be in that water, even if someone were playing a complicated prank.  Oh, living with irrational fears can be so entertaining!)

In the meantime, we’re enjoying a morning without barking orders.  (Shoes!  Teeth!  Backpacks!  Get in the van!)   My daughter asked if I could paint her nails, and I was happy to comply, rather than resorting to my usual response –“Ack!  No time!”.  She picked out her color and now just needs to wash her hands so I can paint her actual fingernails and not the layer of “summertime” coating them.

And then my son Max, 3 1/2, asked me to paint his too.

Look, I grew up in the 70s.  You know, Free to Be You and Me. I have 3 degrees in education, and sat through Behavior Psychology each and every time.  (The theory being that children who aren’t given those evil “gender appropriate” toys won’t develop any sticky little stereotypes or preconceived notion of gender roles.  As it happened, none of my instructors of those classes were taught by people with children, and so I finally gave up defending my position, and describing what would happen if I can give any of my kids a stick.  For my daughter, it becomes a telephone, or, even more likely, she will go looking for “baby sticks” and create a stick family complete with Mommy, Daddy, sister, brother, and kitty sticks.  For my son, it becomes a hammer.  Or a sword.  Or a g-u-n.  I admit to being extremely conservative, an outlier in fact here in Iowa City, but I am 100% certain that my husband and I started all this co-creation with “gender neutral” toys.  We were very short on money when we started having kids, and I knew that toys were going to be passed down a few times.  I don’t think I’ve trained them to do these things, despite what my education professors claim.)

(And, for whatever it’s worth, my son will also “nurse” a baby doll under his shirt. Or his stuffed monkey.  Just so we’re clear on how we do things at our house. )

I am happy to paint Max’s fingernails.  And I will defend this decision to his father, and again this weekend to my own father and subset of my four brothers when we go visiting for the holiday.  They will briefly squirm or roll their eyes.  And they’ll accept it and move on.

You see, I would absolutely go ballistic to anyone who tried to tell my daughter “Girls don’t do _____.”  I would be outraged!  No one better try to limit her with any such nonsense!

So I am ashamed of myself, because when Max asked for nail polish, and then picked out a lovely shade of deep berry (and not the blue or gunmetal I offered), plus a nice sparkly overcoat, I paused, almost imperceptibly, but it was there.  So I’m trying to figure out what the big deal is?  He’s three, he’s copying the older sister he adores, it carries absolutely no ulterior motive of anything at all.  But I can hear my own voice in my head thinking “Boys don’t wear nail polish.”  And right behind that, I hear another voice pipe in, “well, some boys wear nail polish, but most don’t” and that would open up an entirely new topic, and I don’t think my son wants to hear about all this quite yet.  That day, and that conversation, will come along when I’m not looking for it.  I can handle that, just not today.

In high school, I had a friend, Kevin.  He and I vied for first chair trumpet in the band, and I usually won the seat.  He lived for band; I was not quite so passionate about, it but I had enough talent to hold him off.  Kevin and I used to coordinate our outfits for band concerts — he picked out a tie that would match whatever dress I decided to wear.  (Oh my, that sounds even geekier in writing than I had feared.)

Kevin wore mascara and eyeliner.  And a subtle shade of lipstick (not during band practice!)  He was on the plump side.  He wasn’t “Goth” or anything like that, he just liked to wear this make-up.  That was just Kevin to me.  Today, Kevin is married and has several children, so I guess it didn’t predict any lifestyle choice one way or the other.

Kevin is on my mind right now because I would like to treat my son’s choices (and my daughter’s choices, when it comes up) in a non-freaking out kind of way.  In a non- Let’s Discuss This kind of way.  Back then, I noticed Kevin’s choices, but I don’t ever remember letting it affect how I talked to him or treated him.  I am hoping the same for Max today.  This just does not seem like the right time to shut my son down or try to enlighten him to how people think about such things.  He is still so naive and innocent, so happy to be alive; he doesn’t need a lesson on equal rights or diversity, and he’s going to enjoy having his nails painted.  And then he’ll go out in the sand box with his dump trucks, shovels, and some of my missing kitchen utensils, to get busy and filthy.

At least his nails will look nice.

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