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Beware the Imposition of Choice on Your Children

December 2, 2016

Twenty years ago, my Aunt travelled all the way from England to Australia with a carefully preserved full page newspaper article in her suitcase. There was a colour photograph down the centre of the page: a young mother holding a toddler. Columns ran to the left and right of the picture, describing the mother’s liberation. The picture demonstrated the great event: the happy toddler was dressed in blue skivvy, blue dungarees and was holding a blue truck. The mother was beaming. Like a new convert, in the article she testified that she used to think that we are firstly human – before we are gendered – beings… until she had a boy.

My husband and I had recently come across the idea that gender was an over-determined category: the culprit was Naomi Woolf in The Beauty Myth. The shocking news had travelled to England, to extended family. My Aunt was scornful as she handed me the article. ‘Wait until you have children,’ she said.

The mother in the article had believed children were children until she gave birth. Then, no matter how hard she tried to offer diverse toys to her son, all he wanted was trucks and cars. Reading it, I was astounded by the extraordinary naivety of her argument, not to mention the single experimental subject (and where was the control group?).

By then I already knew about the famous research, where differences in adult interactions with babies dressed in pink or blue were recorded. Those dressed in blue (not all boys, but the assumption was made) were played with actively, offered trucks. Those dressed in pink were cooed to, offered soft toys and sung lullabies.

Was it any wonder that by the time children were toddlers they were self-selecting gender-specific toys? Not only is one set of behaviours constantly encouraged, ‘opposite’ behaviours are subjected to shaming practices, from both other parents and their children, who readily shun a child not playing with the ‘right’ toys.

I was also aware that pink had been the colour of choice for boys back in the Victorian era – despite the fact that people around me seemed to think a boy touching pink would an instant homosexual make. Back then, I wasn’t aware of the research that demonstrates differences in how even pregnancy ‘bumps’ are engaged with (yes, they can hear us), depending on the gender of the expected child. I now have two boys of my own, and the past eight years have caused me to frequently reflect on that moment with my Aunt: I have emerged from the silence she imposed on me, as a non-mother.

I have watched others selectively observe my sons’ behaviours, telling me they are picking up sticks ‘because they are a boy’; breaking an arm ‘because they are a boy’; ignoring my cautions ‘because they are a boy’. Most of these things are said within earshot of my children: everyday people casually policing, and thereby participating in reproducing, gender categories, without seeming to reflect that they will see what their ‘lens’ desires (none of us are immune, of course).

But understandings of gender are not about individual observations – they are about a consideration of the research, coupled with a sensitivity to the real-life effects of rigid categorisations on small people.

The diversity of selfhood each of my children possesses cannot be restricted by gender categories. To try to crush them into these gendered expectations I would have to ignore so much of who they are: the extreme sensitivity of the eldest, the love of tea parties of the youngest. Not to mention their (frequently-commented-on) emotional and linguistic fluency. To me, my children reflect the joys I have taught them about play: I loved bows and arrows, trains, boats, tree-climbing, cubbies and spy games. I was over thirty before my mother admitted she faced criticism from her family for buying me the fire trucks and cars I had requested.

If my sons were living with people who subscribed to the world of ‘gender boxes’ (as my husband and I dubbed them), they would be selectively observed both inside and outside their home, I guess: behaviours deemed ‘appropriate’ would be noticed, and other behaviours ignored – or worse, subjected to ongoing shaming practices, in an effort to stamp them out. My children already live in a world in which other people un-reflexively consider it appropriate to comment on their success or failure in ‘achieving’ their gendered status – in parks, at parties, at school. Imagine the impact on the psyche of this additional assault at home, reinforced by parent/s invested in policing the world into two distinct gender categories, one that conflates the body with a burden of rigid rules about what to play with, wear, express and like.

I do wonder about the adult investment in reproducing two oppositional gender categories that determine every aspect of life. Why are the stakes so high? Why do others feel they must maintain and impose their gender categories on my children?

The astonishing comment of a well-educated friend provides a clue. When her husband wasn’t assisting with their small children, even though he was home, she told me he was ‘needing time alone in his cave’ (thank you, Mars and Venus). No surprise that the other bible in this home was Steve Biddulph’s Raising Boys. To question the gendered categories in this family, to even experiment with seeing beyond the rigidity of those two sets of behaviours and their logical out-working in toys, leisure time and roles, would be radical indeed: it would re-write not just the present, but the past and the future; it would put into play an engagement about personhood and preferences that goes well beyond traditional roles and expectations. Is it any wonder, then, that querying the categorization of clothes and toys into blue/pink, tough/nurturing, active/passive becomes a hyper-loaded issue where anxious adults limit children – even those who are not their own?

An issue ostensibly about children’s toys triggers anxiety about the broader gendered order – it awakens the noise of radical voices demanding women’s rights, gay rights. No wonder parents react so intensely to the gift of a doll for a boy, or a truck for a girl. Toys are no longer just toys: they carry the enormous weight of nostalgic demands for a world in which ‘men are men and women are women’, never mind all the research evidence demonstrating the fallacy of the binary – not to mention the negative flow-on effects of beliefs in stereotypes for children and adults (for those who are doubtful of that, in spite of research, just consider the assumptions brought into a relationship by a child raised with gender openness, compared to a child raised with gender boxes. For the research, see Fine’s Delusions of Gender).

I respond to these challenges in social spaces in a wide variety of ways, depending on the context, depending how well I know the people, depending if something inappropriate is said in front of my boys (who will expect a defence from me!). Sometimes, I make a joke of it: when my eldest was mocked for having a pink backpack, I asked him what the other kids were over-reacting about? What was it they thought was going to happen – would his penis fall off? ‘Watch out – has it happened? Ask them for a colander to catch it, so we can take you to the hospital to get it sewn back on.’ I encourage them to have empathy for children living within gender boxes, when they complain that others have criticized them.

‘Imagine being told you were only allowed to have blue everything, because otherwise you weren’t a proper boy. You couldn’t just choose any colour you wanted. Imagine living like that, with those limits.’

I also give them opportunity to sometimes feel like fitting in, or to feel like flouting the status quo, depending on the situation for them, explaining sometimes I can’t be bothered explaining myself either, so let’s just wear a Batman t-shirt today – that’s totally okay too. The point is not to impose my own attitude, but to raise children who critique as they negotiate their place in social spaces, to provide them with tools to get some distance from naturalizing practices and taken-for-granted assumptions – not just in the area of gender.

In a culture that is increasingly obsessed with fetishizing choice, I am constantly amazed that, in relation to gender, choice is the last thing many parents wish to offer. The extent of the defensiveness about this socially is surely an expression of much deeper anxieties among the adults around these children. Why are they so invested in a need to ‘prove’ a binaried gender categorization to me, or to my children?

What exactly are we threatening in their lives, when our family chooses to live with greater fluidity in relation to gender?

Historian Stephen Prothero has argued that cultural wars, begun by anxious conservatives, are doomed to fail, because they only pay attention to lost causes. Hopefully, for the sake of all children – but especially those who find no personal resonance with these rigid categories – time will demonstrate that imposing gender boxes on anyone limits possibilities and removes freedoms that we all wish to embrace, no matter what our age.

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Josephine Browne, MA, is a social welfare worker and writer who is completing a PhD focusing on domestic violence, examined through insights informed by Narrative Therapy. She is passionate about social justice across a range of areas and has a particular interest in gender issues. Josephine is a contracted blogger for the Huffington Post Australia.

Post By Thea Hughes (17 Posts)

Thea spent more than a decade working in a heavily male-dominated industry, inspiring her to begin her formal studies in gender at Sydney University and to found Play Unlimited. As a parent, she is passionate about diminishing the impact of gender-based marketing on the next generation.

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One Comment

  1. John Doe says:

    Please stop forcing peoples hands with your opinion.. you are a minority group.. i think you are gender confused.. once the box is gone kids will make up their minds you moron.. if you want this sort of shit.. start you own shop we ith plain boxed toys.. dont hinder my kids from viewing normality because you are confused…you are the disease that increases the epidemics like AIDS because of homosexuality becoming the apparent norm because of disease like you

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