My mother is a very strong woman, and very accomplished. She raised me and my brothers to believe that we could be anything we wanted to be. And she raised us to believe in the human potential of all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, background or gender. She encouraged us to look at each person as an individual, not as a member of some group, and she strongly discouraged us from stereotyping people based on their membership in any one of these categories. She didn’t want us to make limiting assumptions about people especially because such limiting assumptions had been made about her at earlier times in her life. As a Jewish woman raised in the 50s in central Indiana, she had all too often been the target of stereotypes or lowered expectations based on what was expected of women in that time and place. She realized that she had internalized a lot of these prejudices and had to work many years to finally get to the place where she could rely on her own strength and judgment to determine what her capacities were. Such has been the case with many successful women in our society. And the men have also been bound in their way to the expectations placed on their potential and ability. So we were raised with an understanding that women and men could perform any kind of task they wished in any kind of setting, and that the world should not dictate a different set of possibilities based simply on gender. In short, we were raised to treat all people equally.
So it has been with some mirth that these many years later I look on the next generation of child rearing (especially in my brother’s case) and notice a few things. On the one hand, my brother is much more present in parenting than our own father was when we were at such a young age. Our parents got divorced when I was about 8 (and my brother 6) and our biological father never really played a part in our early childhood. It was only after my mother remarried about a year and a half later that we really got a father figure, and we could not have asked for a better one. My stepfather is in all ways the father we never had as very young children, and he (along with my mother) was always there for us, guiding us, teaching us, fathering us until we were adults. He and my mother are to this day one of those ideal couples I look at to demonstrate that long term love is possible and can be wonderful. They are the rock of our extended family, and spending time with them is always a treat.
My brother has been such a doting father during these early years and it is wonderful to see how much pride he takes in his family. One also gets the sense that he takes great satisfaction in being able to provide materially for them. My brother is clearly the best in the family with financial management. My parents were never great with money and the rest of us inherited their lack of financial acuity. Not so my brother, who has the right salary, investments and accounts. As a lawyer who deeply understands tax law and its implications, my brother has a clear eye on on the future with regard to retirement, health care and education for his children, each account carefully chosen and managed with some relish. Outside of the material well being of his family, my brother is constantly spending time with his kids, teaching them things, telling them how much he loves them at every turn. He punishes them when necessary, but always with a gentle hand and an eye towards making them more caring, responsible, and sharing individuals.
Yet there has been one area of his fathering that I have watched with a touch of dismay. Despite the ways in which we were raised, despite all the evidence around him, my brother is still choosing (perhaps semi-unconsciously) to reinforce gender stereotypes with his children. The evidence is everywhere, from the ways in which he describes them to others, to the names he calls them, to the way he treats them, to the different discipline paths he expects them to follow when they enter their teen years. He will describe his son repeatedly as being “all-boy” and “fearless”, and will go out of his way to reinforce these traits with rough housing and sporty activities of all sorts. He seems to find it important to talk about all the “girlfriends” he has (he is six years old) at school, and what a ladies man he will surely be when he grows up. Although I don’t think my brother would get angry if his son decided to play with Barbie dolls, he clearly has an image of how his son should be and reinforces it with his language, attitude and body language at every turn. Likewise with his daughter who is 4 1/2. She is his “princess” and he encourages her to think of herself that way. He will often talk about how she has “daddy wrapped around her little finger” and (half) jokingly talk about killing any young man that may want to date her when she is older. He routinely talks about how he will need to “protect” her in ways his boy will not need protecting, because she is a girl and therefore more vulnerable to attack. (My sister-in-law appears to be somewhat more even handed on this subject and routinely ridicules the idea that the kids should be treated differently.)
Of course there are some biological differences between boys and girls. But biology is not destiny, and certainly reinforcing the tired stereotypes of the past will not aid children in overcoming them. My mother tells a story about her not taking an economics course until college because that was something men were good at, but not women. She became the highest scoring student in the class. Society at large and parents in particular can’t always stop themselves from seeing their children in certain ways that make them comfortable, but shoehorning them into these roles is limiting. On a public policy level, my brother is completely egalitarian. He would never accept the idea that his son or daughter (or anyone else’s for that matter) would be limited by law or custom from achieving their potential. And yet it seems very important for him in his own family to see the boy as capital “b” Boy, and the girl as capital “g” Girl. When I point out to him some of these things, he dismisses it as the observation of someone who “doesn’t have children” and thus could know nothing about it. I beg to differ. Certainly there are things about the parenting role that I do not know having not experienced it myself. But on the question of gender roles in society, I am fairly expert, having experienced these things first hand. I know how difficult society’s obsession with gender conformity has made being gay for example, and I work every day to make it easier for those who come after me. Girls and boys deserve a world that doesn’t guide them along different paths for no other reason than biology. For them to become fully realized women and men, we need to encourage them to become fully realized human beings and to understand, reinforce, and create equal opportunity for all of us.