A friend recently told the story of her young son’s experience as the only boy in a ballet class. The ballet teacher was preparing a show, and wanted her son to be the bee and the rest of the class – all girls – to be flowers. My friend protested, asking why not give each child a choice of whether to be a bee or a flower. An excellent solution, I thought. Her son chose to be a flower.
Still, the scenario annoyed me a bit, even as I laughed at the idea of flowers being female. After all, if flowers didn’t have both male and female parts, flowers would no longer exist.
We like to file things into categories. A world defined and boxed. A taxonomy to make the world more predictable. We try to reign in human complexity and comply with our cultural histories by enforcing gender (and other) dichotomies and stereotypes on young children. It continues the familiar rather than attempting something new. Likewise, we dreamily assign heterosexual romantic meaning to opposite-gender friendships in young children. “Oh look! He has a girlfriend!” I recall being asked if I was going to marry various male friends when I was too young to understand marriage beyond a way that adults play house.
Sadly, children will learn limitations soon enough. Give them time to explore their personhood purely as long as they can before burdening them with our old cultural baggage.
When Sunboy was a toddler, I gave him both dolls and cars. He decided for himself that he wasn’t interested in dolls. Sometimes he asks me to put barrettes in his hair and shows interest in makeup on the rare occasion I wear it. I comply. It’s healthy for him to explore the possibilities of this vast world. Once you travel to other countries, it becomes easier to see culture as a veneer we paint over biology. Normalcy comprises a broad spectrum and expresses itself diversely in dress, rituals and roles: which are a richness and which are a requirement?
My mother recently said she needed warmer stockings to wear to church. “Why not wear pants?” I asked, “It’s freezing outside.” “It’s disrespectful to God for women to wear pants to church,” she replied. I said I thought that God would want her to be warm, and asked if an obligatory skirt was true in every country or just the United States.
I grew up compliantly wearing skirts to church in the middle of Winter and admit it did little to boost my religious experience. My children wear warm clothes and comfortable shoes to church. Hopefully they won’t be distracted by cold toes.
When does culture change if children continue to be indoctrinated with old ways of thinking? We expect to be treated with equality as adults but are quick to box young children into expectations of gender and sexuality. At what age does equality begin?
We say girls are flowers – not bees – and yet expect them to somehow grow up with the confidence to be whomever they want to be, maybe enter a traditionally male field. Which girl will drop her pretty petals to be president? Likewise, how strong must a boy be to explore a traditionally female interest knowing of the inevitable ridicule to follow?
In the end, society pays the price of needlessly placed barriers that preclude children from developing their talents based on the demographics of their birth. We all pay the price.
If we want to move past the restrictions of the past , we cannot keep repeating the cycles of our youth. Change takes work and thoughtful action. Let’s dig deeper.