Big Sis asked me what a zombie was the other day. Here is our conversation:
Big Sis: Mummy, what’s a zombie?
Me: It’s the undead. Like, the living dead.
Big Sis: Huh?
Me: It’s like, someone who is half dead.
Big Sis: You mean like [gesturing a line through her face and body] this side is dead and this side is alive? (they have clearly been learning about “halves” at school)
Me: No! [struggling, then remembering “Shaun of the Dead”] They are people that walk around like this [now giving my best “Shaun of the Dead” zombie impression with stiff arms outstretched moving up and down]
Big Sis: You mean a puppet!
Me: [Aargh! This is tough] No, no, no! It’s like some one who has died but then comes back to life.
Big Sis: Oh! You mean like Jesus Christ!
Totally not what I meant, but very funny.
HAPPY EASTER EVERYONE!
Photograph by Giorgia Bertazzi
Recently Big Sis was cast as Mummy Bear in her class assembly. We were asked to provide at short notice (always at short notice!) a costume. Thankfully, the school were making the masks for the children, so that was not required, and as the school assembly is not such a big deal, it wasn’t so big an ask. I went with Big Sis to her dressing up box to see what we could find. Brown, long sleeve T-shirt, brown tights, pink skirt. Good, good. But these were just normal clothes. How about some dressing up stuff so Mummy Bear can be more of a character?
Here is our conversation:
Me: I know, I know [excited], why doesn’t mummy bear be a doctor and then you can carry this bag and wear this stethoscope around your neck?
Big Sis: But Mummy Bear wears an apron.
Me: She doesn’t have to, she can be a doctor. Or, I know, you can wear this fireman’s costume and Mummy bear can be a fireman.
Big Sis: Mummy bear wears an apron, because she makes the porridge.
Me: Are you sure, maybe Daddy Bear made the porridge. Your daddy makes you porridge and pancakes sometimes.
Big Sis: In the book at school, [insistent] Mummy bear makes the porridge and wears an apron.
Big Sis wore an apron.
This is the most recent in a long line of unsuccessful attempts by me to break the gender stereotypes prevalent in society.
The first was just before Big Sis’s third birthday when the nursery decided to have a whole week (!) of fancy dress. This must have been a sadistic joke on the nursery’s behalf as I saw poor children being trundled into nursery for 5 whole days wearing the same Spiderman pyjamas with working parents looking very displeased. I was also a full time working parent at the time and shared the same displeasure, but vowed that we would at least attempt 5 different costumes, however crappy. She was not yet 3 years old, so at that point in time I was still winning the war on polyester Princess dresses. The first day, she went as a cat. We had a foam-cat mask from some party she had been to, and she wore a black long sleeved T-shirt and black leggings. The second day, I had decided that she could go as a Pirate. She had a jumper with a skull and cross bones on, denim shorts and she could put a handkerchief around her head. I managed to coerce her into this outfit. She was not happy. I promised her chocolates when she got home.
Big Sis: I don’t want to be a pirate. They are boys.
Me: No, there are girl pirates as well, pirates aren’t just for boys.
Big Sis: None of the other girls will be pirates.
Me: Well, it’s nice to be something different.
I had got her to the door by now, although she was dragging her heels and not wanting to cross the threshold into the outside world. Eventually, she slumped down across the doorway in tears.
Big Sis: Why can’t I just be a Princess like everyone else?
This was too much for even a feminist like me to bear. I became tearful. Was I really going to force my daughter to do something against her will and want based on my own ideology? I made her go as a pirate but promised that she could go as a Princess the next day, and that was how the war on pink polyester was lost.
The second, was when Big Sis requested a pink stethoscope for her 4th birthday. I went to Toys R Us to purchase said stethoscope only to find that the only pink stethoscopes that they had were attached to a nurse’s uniform. The doctor’s costume was resplendent with blue stethoscope. Hmmm. I literally stood in front of the costumes for hours deliberating in my mind. Should I buy the doctor’s uniform and encourage breaking stereotypes so that she might aspire to be a doctor like me, rather than a nurse, or is it too much hassle to risk tears on her birthday and screams of “I wanted a pink one!”. There were no tears on her birthday.
The third time was when Big Sis and Lil Bro were playing together. Here is the conversation:
Big Sis: You be the doctor and I’ll be the nurse.
Me: Wait, why can’t Lil Bro be the nurse and you be the doctor?
Big Sis and Lil Bro in unison: Because doctors are boys and Nurses are girls!
Me: [in disbelief that this is happening in my own household] No they are not! I am a doctor and I am a woman.
Big Sis and Lil Bro: [look at me silent for a moment as they ponder this puzzling conundrum]
Big Sis: Yes, but he wants to be the doctor and I want to be the nurse. Anyway the nurse’s uniform has a skirt so it is for a girl.
Damn Toys R US! I knew I shouldn’t have bought the pink stethoscope!
I was glad to hear more recently that Toys R Us and other toy retailers are rethinking their gender stereotyped toys. I haven’t been recently to check out if they now sell doctor’s costumes with pink stethoscopes. For my children it is too late. What I worry about is this:
(1) If role models of working mothers and domesticated fathers are clearly available in the home, gender non-stereotyping is being actively pushed at home, how is it still not getting through that women and men can be whatever they choose? I have noticed that media portrayal of genders, at least on CBeebies (which is my children’s main exposure to media up to now) is pretty fair so the easy target of media, is not at fault this time. (Dr Ranj is male, but Nina (“Scientist”) is female and there is a female doctor and male nurse on “Me Too”). So where is this stereotyping coming from?
(2) If my children, who are the next generation, are still growing up with such defined gender stereotypes, where does this leave feminism? Has so little changed in the 30 years between myself and my daughter? Given that my children have already bought into gender stereotypes, will they be able to be stronger than me and insist that their children are brought up gender-stereotype free? Will we have to wait until our grandchildren’s generation to see if gender stereotyping can be beaten?
In my mind, the problem is so pervasive which is why it is so hard to beat. It goes beyond “pink” and “blue”. Every traditional tale and history lesson is encoded gender stereotype. Every advert from Barbie to Iceland (Why doesn’t bloody Dad go to Iceland and get the frozen goods for once?) is encoded gender stereotype. Every word we choose to use is gender stereotyped (ambitious men/ pushy women). My view is that language is a good place to start, as it is the fabric of our culture and society. To this cause I hope that you will appreciate that on this blog, where I mean “parent”, I use the word “parent”, rather than “mother”, which cannot be said for the majority of parenting scientific papers, news articles, websites and media.
There’s also very little pink.
As I was driving the children home the other day, we saw a man of African ethnicity sweating profusely as he performed his job of using a large hooked stick to manually dredge a pond to remove dense amounts of algae and pond weed. “What a horrible job!” I exclaimed. It was a statement not a question, so I did not expect any response, but to my surprise after a pause a small voice shouted back “He should go back to his own country”.
I nearly crashed the car in horror. I am sure that those words sear into the flesh of any ethnic minority person in this country and many others. When I was growing up, “Go back to your own country” was almost as popular a schoolyard taunt as “Ching Chong Chinaman”. In fact “Go back to where you came from Ching Chong Chinaman” was probably a favourite. How in heaven had I, who prided myself in liberal leanings managed to raise a child sprouting mantra more akin to UKIP (right wing political party in the U.K.) manifesto than Hampstead socialism?
“What do you mean? Why did you say that?” I asked Big Sis tentatively. Mental images of the sanctimonious telling off I was going to give to her friend, friend’s parents, teachers, babysitters, and anyone else who she might have had contact with that might have contaminated her with this right wing view.
“Because of what you said.”
“What? When?” I demanded, having never held such views in all my life.
“Two weeks ago when we were doing maths homework”
The blood drained from my face in realisation. This was the conversation that we had had two weeks prior:
Big Sis: “Why do I have to do this anyway?”
Me: “Because it’s your homework.”
Big Sis: “Yes but it’s so boring, why do we need to do maths.”
Me: “Because if you don’t learn to do maths or to read, then you won’t be able to get a good job. You’ll have to clean toilets or other people’s houses.”
Big Sis: “Does that mean Terri can’t read or do maths?”
Terri was our lovely cleaner who came on an ad hoc basis and also helped with babysitting, I certainly did not want Big Sis lording it up over her. Ferocious back pedalling required.
Me: “No Terri is very clever but she didn’t grow up in this country. So she can read and write and do maths very well, but only in her own language. Because she decided to move to this country, she can’t read or write or do maths so well in English, which is why she has to clean our house.”
Big Sis seemed to accept this explanation, so with relief she finished her homework.
From this innocent conversation, Big Sis had decided that people who had moved here from another country should go back to their own countries in order to have better jobs. Seeing the African man doing a back-breaking job, she figured that he could read, write and do maths and therefore had better job prospects in his “own country”.
From this, I concluded: IT IS SO HARD TO EXPLAIN SOCIAL PROBLEMS TO CHILDREN!
Give me scientific questions like “What’s a rainbow?” (white light split into its composite colours by prism shaped raindrops) and “Why is grass green?” (chlorophyll) any day. How to explain social inequality, poverty, racism? Tricky! Given relief that at least Big Sis was not a bigoted racist, I wimped out of explaining the other difficult questions (e.g. why should she assume that someone with brown skin was not from this country?) and issues that might arise that would require explanation of the world’s skewed distribution of wealth, immigration, asylum seeking, social class and racism. It’s so hard – I’m imagining something like this:
Me: People can’t always go back to their own countries, because there is probably a good reason why they left.
Big Sis: Why?
Me: Maybe the government want to put them in prison.
Big Sis: What’s government?
Me: Umm, the people that decide the rules in a country.
Big Sis: You mean the police?
Me: Something like that, the police make sure people do what the rules say.
Big Sis: Is he a baddie then? Did he steal something?
Me: No he is a good person. OK, that’s not the reason he left his country. Maybe he can’t get a good job in his country.
Big Sis: He can’t read?
Me resorting to head banging.
Anyone who has read “Nurture shock” [by Po Branson & Ashley Merryman] will know that children do not just soak up politically correct ideas from society without explanations. Often they can come to their own conclusions (often warped) if not explicitly explained, so it needs to be done. As I carried on the journey home, I wondered if Big Sis had made such comments at school or elsewhere, telling the school cleaners to “Go back to their own country” or something. Mortificado! Clearly this talking to children business needs more thought. I will definitely explain it properly to the children. Just need to think how…
Anyone with good ideas, please help!