There's a lot of talk these days about gender bias in children. In particular, girls are encouraged to be assertive, not labelled as "bossy" if they do take a leadership stance, and expand their horizons beyond being ballerinas, princesses and anything generally pink and fluffy. Stories and books about inspirational girls and women abound. There are toys that are carefully designed to nurture girls' spatial and constructive abilities in the hope that there will be more women engineers in the future.
I have been observing these efforts with much admiration and also a little bit of concern. I thought I would share my opinions, and that is all they are -- opinions, as a mother of a daughter and a son.
Firstly, I recognize that the thrust of these movements is to empower girls and future women to reach for the stars and achieve beyond their wildest dreams -- to not limit these dreams to those of a pretty princess waiting to be rescued by a handsome prince (*vomit*). To teach them that women are amazing, limitless creatures who can do pretty much anything. I have to say this next bit. I grew up in the 70s and 80s. The feminist movement was only just getting started. My family was, and is, very traditional. But I never felt I was limited in any way. My mother didn't read me stories of inspiring women or steer me away from dolls. She sent me to ballet lessons (I hated them). I rode bikes, swam, played with Barbie dolls and Lego. I wore pink, and many other colours too. I showed academic promise very early, and my parents encouraged and nurtured my education. Eventually I became a doctor.
I never ever felt that there was anything I couldn't do because I was female. Until I became a mother and had to consider issues like childcare and working hours. Suddenly I was limited, hamstrung. I felt a need to be with my children so I chose to work part-time. I stopped attending conferences. I stopped putting my hand up for opportunities that would mean extra time and work -- I was too tired to take this on. My point is, are we building future women up only to leave them unsupported when they eventually have their own children? Even with the most equitable sharing of childcare duties, being a parent involves an ongoing commitment that needs to be juggled along with career commitments. Women still shoulder the majority of the childcare (well, by definition, someone has to). I recognize that a lot of people might say at this point "What about the dads?" I believe that the majority of fathers also face similar conflicts, and that it is challenging to have two parents who have demanding jobs or careers. What is the solution for families with two breadwinners who don't have convenient extended family support? Nannies (which the majority of the working population cannot afford)? More flexible working hours? The ability to work from home? I don't think these questions have been answered for our generation.
My second thought on this matter is that I don't care if my daughter wants to dress as a princess for now. She's four years old for heaven's sake. She loves to wear a tutu, tiara and wave a magic wand around. She adores unicorns and fairies and ponies. She also plays with these amazing magnetic blocks called Tegu blocks. She draws. She spends a lot of time "mothering" her unicorn -- because she is imitating me. (Rest assured I don't go around in a tutu and tiara though!!) She is who she is. When I ask what she wants to do in the future, she says "Like you mummy -- a doctor". We talk about reasons to "work" -- helping others, increasing value in others' lives and getting paid at the same time. (I think she will be an entrepreuneur. She once said she could charge cars $2 for helping them park in tight car park spots! A girl after my own heart).
Here's what I have to say for those who worry their daughters might turn into princesses, as in helpless silly females who value the superficial only and have no problem-solving skills. Just don't be a princess yourself. Be assertive. Gain control over your emotions. Display strength and courage and resilience. Don't read women's magazines. Don't read about Gwyneth's "conscious uncoupling". Don't idolize celebrities. Turn off the television -- you'll stop the endless flow of gender stereotypes from TV commercials. Don't expect flowers from your partner. Don't expect to be pampered just because you're a woman. Buy yourself flowers if you like. Share your successes at home. Act like a lady -- gracious, loving, respectful. Read. Keep learning and show your daughter the pleasure that comes from learning something new and mastering new skills. Don't gossip. Problem solve. Don't bitch. Love your body and treat it well -- show your daughter how to make fitness an essential part of your every day. Have a healthy relationship with food. Stop emotional eating. Learn to meditate. Get involved in volunteer and charity work. Don't simply read her stories on inspirational women -- be one yourself.
Teach her resilience, self-efficacy, respect for herself and for others. Teach her that lifelong learning and lifelong loving is the key to true contentment. These lessons from you will be far more influential than a few Barbie storybooks (*vomit* again). It may not seem that way now but when it matters, she will remember you as her role model, not Barbie.
And let her wear a tutu if she wants to.
This post was originally published on the Healthy Doctor Blog
ALSO ON HUFFPOST: