Monday, December 26, 2011

The Gift of Gender, Part Deux

Yesterday morning I sat in one of my sister's eminently comfortable lounge chairs in her Washington, DC, home, in wavering stages of wakefulness because of a protracted bout of jetlag and post-exam fatigue. It is a uniquely anguishing cocktail of symptoms, and does little help for sleep. Please try to avoid it where possible.

So there I sat, coffee in hand, marveling at the whirl of childhood vim and hysteria. The stage was set in the form of a Christmas tree bedecked with various discordant designs of glossy paper. Expectation weighed portentously in the air. Chris, my sister's husband, held bleary vigil over the mound of gifts. My sister, Catrin, tended vainly to the children (Lucy, 6, Mimi, 4), who were bouncing up and down in their pajamas, as if little electric bolts shot through their feet every few seconds. Wide-eyed, they awaited a bounty of gifts -- a bequeathment of generosity so excessive as to create, by my lights, decades of subtle psychological damage.

I had in previous years seen both of my sisters in various stages of the gift-buying process: the planning, buying, organizing, wrapping, and so on. I noticed that, no discredit intended to my bothers-in-law, that this was quintessentially my sisters' role. I saw it yesterday morning too. I looked back to my childhood, and remarked at (in the post-Santa years, before which my parents of course had nothing to do with Christmas) the buying and the anxiety over who gets what, and the tending carefully to children's myriad and almost unknowingly selfish "wants." All of this, I saw now with crystal clarity, was my mother's work. Period. And without having to do a study on the subject I would wager that this is the case for most American families and most American mothers.

Some of it may be explained by the fact that many families' private/domestic spheres still belong very much to the mom. Unfair forces still continue to keep many mothers limited to the private sphere of family life, and so gift giving, then, may be but one extension of that world. The parental "sorting process" --an interesting dynamic we covered briefly in one of our class's early discussions-- may also play a part in explaining the mother's dominance of the gift-buying domain. Fathers may end up being the caretaker of the trash, or of temperamental DVD players; mothers may end up in charge of dinners, the garden, or furniture arrangement. These are admittedly hopelessly obvious stereotypes, but it is remarkable how that sorting process often works with such consistency. Maybe gift-buying falls in Mom's hands, but maybe it does so for no greater reason than the presumption (likely flawed) that they are better at it.

At any rate, I have noted time and again my woeful skills at gift-buying. I have always pegged it to my brain --my quixotic and distracted intellectual musings, my acute lack of insight into my friends' evolving "wish lists." I might be misled into thinking that women are just better at this, using as very limited evidence my mother, my girlfriend, and my two sisters. They are all whizzes at it. Yet my brother also has a knack of divining intuitively what someone wants or what they might like. Clearly, then, this is about nurture and not about nature. In my sister's family, at least, Christmas gift-buying lands in her lap. She's good at it, yes, and she clearly enjoys putting thought an love into her children (not just on Christmas and not just in the form of presents). Yet I could sense her relief that this morning spelled the end of another harrowing month-plus of planning and execution.

Now, this isn't what I really intended to write about. I actually wanted to write about gender roles for children, seen in the way we buy things for children. Yet it was covered already, by one of my clever classmates, here. Even worse it was a thoughtful and good read! At least if she had done a rotten job of it, I could rationalize getting around the preemption. Alas, so be it. I will add my two cents anyway.

When deciding what to buy "our" children should we mix it up, and go for so-called "gender neutral" gifts, and allow them to move naturally to those kinds of toys they prefer? On one level, that would appear to make sense, in that there are some things all children love (children's books, DVDs) and there are some things (dolls, princess dresses, footballs, for example) where a child will rarely, though of course not never, be happy to receive and to play with both. The question is, which way will the children lean? According to gender assumptions about pink, dolls, swords, army men, etc.? Or according to the assuption that kids like all kinds of things, and if we allow the kids to choose, then the parents can follow the lead. That is what I think Rose Sawyer was getting at in her post, and it is a great idea to follow the kids' leads.

This article, here,
makes a similar point in decrying parents who reflexively suppress or turn a blind eye to a son who takes a liking to playing with dolls, or a daughter who wants to get a mohawk. The article talks about how more and more parents are allowing their children to run with it, and are supporting their choice. If we assume that there ave always been kids who wanted to cross genders by not falling in lockstep with the other football-loving boys --and if we assume that gender proscriptions hurt their ability to be who they want to be with their identities and with their toys-- then removing those restrictions will alllow more fluid toy-gender identities to emerge. Moreover, writes the author of the article, not only should it not be a "bad" thing for a boy to want a barbie, but unnecessarily worried parents should also cool their jets about exactly what that means anyway. A child psychologist interviewed for the column states that kids go through various stages of interest with their toys. It often says only that they like to mix it up, not that they will be straight, or gay, or transgender.

I found that insight a helpful way to get unfairly worried parents to sit back and let things happen, even if they are not yet willing to be enlightened enough to allow their children to be who they intuitively want to be. My niece, Sylvia, asked if I would play with her. I said sure. Little did I know that her main and almost only playmate is her rambunctious older Brother, Alfred, whose sole apparent purpose is to construct elaborate games involving knights, soldiers, and murder-by-sword. So I found it a bit jarring when Sylvia, a lovely little thing who looks as if primed to enter a Janis Joplin look-alike casting, said "Let's play WAR!!" and proceeded to chase me about the apartment with a plastic dagger.

However, I also noted, as may others have, just how uncanny it is for most --and I stress, most, not all-- kids to gravitate to toys according to these strict gender norms. The boys will so often find great glee, without any solicitation, upon building a fort, or throwing balls, and the little girl will so often want to play with dolls (case in point: Lucy and Mimi, who, every two hours or so, seem to demand being changed into a different princess dress!). Still, the fact that most kids act this way proves nothing. Articles like the Ny Times on, and Rose Sawyer's post, alert parents to their responsibility with their children, who can sense the foreboding pressure of parental gender expectations. A great way to understand the dynamic is to listen to his wonderful gem from the 1970s: It is a bit of poignant nostalgia, a great song/skit, from the pathbreaking children's LP, Free to Be You and Me. The skit is called "William Wants a Doll." You should listen to it. I grew up with this album. It is etched forever in my psyche.

enjoy the rest of the holidays all!

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