Today’s guest post is from Rachel of Rachel’s Ruminations, an independent travel blog based in the Netherlands. I’m delighted to have her perspective on giving gifts to children.
A few years ago, I was planning a visit to my relatives in Israel. This set of cousins included a total of 11 children at that point. I had only actually ever met three of them, but I wanted to give all of them gifts.
So once I decided on the trip, I kept my eyes open for small, inexpensive gifts that would be appropriate for 11 children, aged between 13 years and six months, whom I didn’t actually know.
The day before I was due to leave, I sat down to wrap the purchases I’d accumulated and was ashamed and horrified at what I saw:
My choices contradicted everything I believed about raising children without pre-conceived assumptions or expectations about gender.
For a boy, aged six, I had bought a self-winding flashlight.
For two girls, aged six and almost six, I had bought bracelets: pretty, glittery bracelets in two different colors.
For two boys, aged 11, I had bought harmonicas.
For a girl, aged 13, I had bought a pretty barrette.
For a girl, aged four, I had bought a flowery hair clip.
What was I thinking? Was I a sexist? Why hadn’t it occurred to me that a six-year-old girl would enjoy a self-winding flashlight just as much as a six-year-old boy?
What made me think that a 13-year-old girl would be happy with a barrette?
And what was it about me that I didn’t think about this at the time I made all these purchases?
As soon as I realized what I'd done, I jumped in the car and went back to the store, where I bought two more self-winding flashlights for the two girls. I bought a very small notebook and magnetic bookmarks for the 13-year-old girl, both of them "Gorjuss" merchandise aimed at teenage girls, decorated with rather gothic-themed drawings. (I was horrified to notice a whole section of Top Model merchandise, clearly aimed at even younger girls. Who would buy that for their kid?) I didn’t have much time at that point, so the four-year-old girl would have to settle for the barrette, plus a bracelet.
It occurred to me that I can blame this unthinking conformity to some extent on my own upbringing, and to some extent on my kids.
As a child, I got dolls and stuffed animals to play with. I wanted Hot Wheels cars more than anything, but “those are for boys”. Whenever I visited my only male friend’s house (We were friends because our mothers were friends.), all I ever wanted to do was play with his cars, and all he ever wanted to do was play Monopoly, which he always won.
Because I had no brothers, there were no “boy’s toys” lying around for me to play with. I ended up turning to books as soon as I learned how to read, and didn’t need much else after that.
Later, in the 70’s, my mother discovered feminism, and I read every issue of Ms Magazine from cover to cover. By then, though, my own socialization was pretty complete: I knew to keep my knees together when I sat, especially in a dress, and that wearing a dress meant I couldn't climb a tree. I knew that it was good to be smart, but being pretty got you attention. I knew I could choose any profession, but was aware of very few role models outside the norm.
While at that point my mother was telling me I could be whatever I wanted, she continued to fulfill the gender expectations of the stereotypical suburban housewife: she cooked, she cleaned, she did the shopping, and, on the side, to make some extra money, she worked as a realtor for a while and later as a dealer in antique porcelain. My father, on the other hand, was the family breadwinner. He left the house every weekday morning for work, and never did any cooking or cleaning. (I can remember the one time my father ever cooked during my childhood. He tried to follow a recipe for Welsh rarebit but had to ask me what a saucepan was.)
Most families I knew conformed to these standard gender roles. I didn't meet anyone who didn't conform – that I was aware of – until I went away to college.
Recognizing all of this, I resolved to do things differently with my own kids. My daughter, right from the start, had dolls and Legos and cars and action figures and blocks and books.
I also insisted on dressing her gender-neutrally: blue went beautifully with her big eyes, so my favorite for her was a blue shirt and OshKosh overalls so that she could move freely. I told her how smart and strong she was, but left the comments about how she looked to other people.
Nevertheless, her wardrobe included “girly” clothing because other people, including my mother, bought them for her. And as soon as she was old enough to express a preference, she did: she wanted pink and red. She wanted dresses, preferably with frills and lace. She most emphatically did not want to wear jeans, unless they were red or pink and preferably fringed with lace. Was this some inborn preference, or did she pick it up from her environment?
And as for toys, she almost never played with her toy cars. Instead, she lined them up very neatly along a crack in the floorboards. She did the same with our shoes. But she never rolled them anywhere: just lined them up and then moved on to another toy.
At three, she wanted a Barbie more than anything. All her friends had them, but I refused to get her one. To my great annoyance, she received one on her fourth birthday from one of those friends. She was thrilled. And I was furious at her friend’s mother, but too well-trained in politeness to let her know.
The only way she used her Legos was to build stables for her My Little Pony’s, which she loved.
When she was five, her little brother was born. Again I made sure to dress him gender-neutrally and to give him access to toys of all sorts. And again, it was all for nothing.
He loved the cars: to roll off tables or crash against the wall. Legos were great for making more cars or planes (preferably if a friend did the actual building of the machine and he could just play with it).
He showed no interest in dolls whatsoever. There was some interest in action figures, but only in terms of the violence they could inflict on each other. A toy weapon would have made him very happy, if I'd allowed it.
My son did have a period in which he declared that pink was his favorite color, and he would wear hand-me-down pink shirts from his sister. That only lasted until he went to preschool. One day one of his little friends declared that “pink is for girls” and that was it: he refused to wear pink again.
Later, from about the age of nine until he was about fourteen, he chose to wear his hair long. People often mistakenly assumed he was a girl, but that never seemed to bother him. I loved that: his ability to ignore what anyone thought and be comfortable with himself, long hair and all. At the same time, though, he was completely gender-conforming in every other respect.
So as I was shopping for all these children, I was thinking of my own. My daughter, at six years old, would have loved those glittery bracelets. At 13, that barrette would have been perfect. My son would have loved a hand-cranked flashlight at six and a harmonica later on.
I can blame my unconscious gender conformity on what my parents and children have taught me, yet I’m the one who fell into this stereotypical pattern. I have called myself a feminist ever since those Ms Magazines back in the 70's, but I realize now that being a feminist isn’t something that is attained and lasts forever, like a college degree or an appendectomy scar; it has to be consciously maintained and rejuvenated, like tuning up a car or watering a plant.
Perhaps we all need a regular feminism tune-up, to make sure we haven't regressed into facile, complacent acceptance of the status quo: becoming unconscious sexists. My gift-shopping endeavor seems to have done the trick.
Thank you for your candor, Rachel! I know this is an important conversation in our family as well. Be sure to check out Rachel’s website: RachelsRuminations.com .