When my children wrote their Christmas lists for Santa, the contents were not that surprising based on what their interests are. My daughter wrote hers very studiously and in great detail. I helped my son with his, given that he is only three. His list was just the loveliest list. It comprised two things: Loads of Ninjas, and Loads of Babies. Ninjas being the Lego craze he is obsessed with. And Babies because of the love he has for doll babies at the moment.
Santa delivered the requested items and he brought a baby doll for each of them. The children named the baby dolls Wendy and Michael, of Peter Pan fame, and they have quickly become part of the family.
So far, so uneventful.
The reaction to Michael, however, has been somewhat interesting, and a little surprising. Not because he’s got a random name. Not because he goes everywhere with us. But because he is my son’s doll. And for reasons not made clear to us, he inspires surprising reactions everywhere he goes. From raised eyebrows, to ‘oh, ok’ comments when we introduce Michael as our son’s doll and not our daughter’s, as people initially assume. We’ve even had people commending us for giving our son a doll.
How strange, eh. Welcome to 2017 folks. Gender stereotyping is alive and well.
I was a little bit used to this before Santa brought Michael, as my son liked to dress up in Princess dresses a lot. This made some people deeply uncomfortable and had the added side effect of making my husband and I feel deeply amused by their reactions. It feels much the same with the presence of Michael, but this time it makes me feel a little sad. Sad that a little boy having a doll is such a surprise to people. Sad because they feel the need to point it out or patronise us in a ‘good for you’ way. Sad because in 2017 people still carry around some very defined expectations of gender that they assign to children. My son is a boy with thoughts and feelings, with loves and likes, with things that piss him off and things that confuse him. He loves many different toys and pastimes. He loves cars, Ninja Lego people, toy kitchens, making pretend tea, wearing Princess dresses, building toy towers, destroying toy towers, singing to Frozen, and he absolutely loves Michael.
I have read a lot about the campaigns to change the way retailers sell children’s toys, such as Let Toys be Toys, and I think they are fabulous campaigns making a real difference. But I can’t shake the feeling that, for all the change we might bring about in retailing, there is a huge change needed but not happening with the way we ourselves see children and gender. How can real change happen if the adults around children continue to express surprise when children don’t conform to a stereotype? I’ve seen this much more since having my son. Little things such as the way some people react when he is upset by things. Where they might physically comfort a little girl if she cries, by hugging her and providing the affection that children need, some adults find this difficult. And I’ve heard differences in the way people have spoken to him – he is ‘kid’ or ‘mate’, whereas his sister is ‘sweetheart’ or ‘darling’. Not from everybody, of course, and not all the time, but enough for me to notice.
And I see it a lot when I’m around and about, watching other grown-ups interact with children. From the little boy in the playground who is distressed by something and being told to ‘man up’ by his mum, to the little boy engaged in full tantrum mode in a country park whilst his parent tells him to ‘stop crying, stop being a baby, and stop behaving like a little girl’. Nice. Progressive.
But how do you change decades of narrow-minded thinking? How do you rise up and challenge the status quo? Well, how about we take it back to basics and start at the beginning, by letting children be children. Stop judging them when they buck the trend. Stop imposing our own value judgements on them. Stop plotting out their whole lives based on the actions they engage in as children. Stop defining their futures by the toys they choose and the activities they enjoy. Stop making them feel that showing emotions is a female trait and that they have to select activities and interests based on old-fashioned and dated thinking. Let them know they are accepted and valued, whatever their interests, preferences and opinions. Let them know the world is theirs for the taking. Wouldn’t that be a great start to 2017.