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Apropos of nothing except years of liberal indoctrination, Franny announced recently that Barbie is stupid. You can imagine how much this thrilled her hippy-dippy,  feminist mom.

Barbie and toy guns are equally verboten in our household; our valiant effort to squelch body image issues, violence, and gender specific play, all in one fell swoop. Yes, we're so deluded we actually think it's possible to keep children from falling into stereotypical gender roles the moment they begin walking. 

Our efforts haven't been entirely successful. Both Drew and Franny have begged for Barbies. They've also (as predicted by all the naysayers) used sticks, blocks, legos and all kinds of other inventive things as stand-ins for guns and swords. But we have had some luck getting them to recognize that there's no such thing as a boy toy or a girl toy. Their games may not be politically correct, but they're rarely limited by traditional stereotypes about gender. 

This morning, Franny was running around in her frilly, pastel Disney Princess nightgown, waving a stick in the air and playing zombie pirates. "Cut off their heads!" she shouted, with bloodthirsty glee. She's a much more girly-girl than I was; her favorite colors are pink and purple, and she loves princesses and wears dresses most of the time, but she also loves pirates and dinosaurs. My fears that she will be insecure, shy, or unwilling to speak her mind, seem ridiculous when I hear her boss everyone around and state her opinions with unequivocal nerve. 

Drew's play has become more firmly "boyish" as he's gotten older, although he once played with baby dolls and painted his fingernails purple. In our culture it continues to be easier to be a tomboy than a sissy, and the socialization he's received from his peers has driven this lesson home. But he still likes to play dress-up with his sister, and he knows better than to exclude her from his games by saying that only boys can be knights or pirates.

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The success we've had feels like it's been achieved by pushing against the vast weight of accumulated culture - pink dresses and football uniforms for newborns, the "blush and bashful" aisle at the toy store, the online store that asks "boy or girl?" before directing you to toy selections, the duplication of non-gendered toys like play vehicles and blocks in pastels for girls and primary colors for boys - all the ways in which we're told that boys and girls (and men and women) are profoundly, innately different, and that play is inevitably gendered.

I am particularly irritated by parents who make coy remarks about how obvious it is that gender differences are innate because their sons were all boy from day one or their daughters have always been little princesses. These parents inevitably insist that they did nothing to socialize their children that way, but nonetheless their children exhibit markedly gendered behavior. My question is how is it possible to raise a child in our culture without constantly exposing him or her to stereotypical ideas about men and women? Unless you avoid all media, make your own toys and clothes, and raise your child in complete isolation from all other adults and children, he or she will be surrounded by culturally approved ideas about masculinity and femininity. Even if such extreme measures were possible, you'd still have to contend with your own deeply ingrained ideas about gender roles. In the face of such an insidious and pervasive meme, how can we untangle how much of masculinity or femininity is inherent and how much is learned

Most likely the behavior differences between boys and girls (and men and women) are a combination of nature and nurture, and we'll probably never know exactly how much influence each one has. What is certain is that, no matter what the origin of these differences, they're not as clear cut as our culture has traditionally drawn them. My reading and my experience with children and adults suggests that there probably are some cognitive differences between males and females, but it is unclear what exactly those differences are. Probably there is a wide range of normal for each sex, and a great deal of overlap. This is obviously true of most physical differences, such as strength and height - most men are taller than most women, but the tallest woman is quite a bit taller than the shortest man. Perhaps women are more likely to be verbal and less likely to be spatial, but certainly there are many men who are more verbal than many women.

It seems to me that it doesn't matter whether gender differences are innate or cultural. Children are neither blank slates waiting to be encoded nor preprogrammed robots. They come into this world with many tendencies and inclinations; parents are obliged to direct these traits into socially acceptable behavior while also nurturing the characteristics that make the child uniquely him or herself. In some cases these qualities may conform to societal expectations more than we're comfortable with, in others they may be at odds with what our culture considers normal. In either situation, the most important gift we can give our children is to accept them and love them for who they are. We can also encourage them not to limit themselves to traditional definitions of masculine and feminine, but to mix and match to suit their own tastes - the girl who wears only dresses and loves to play princess can also hit home runs, and the rough and tumble boy who loves football may also enjoy ballet. Our culture wants to divide certain traits, toys, clothes and behaviors into two neat camps and force us all to choose one or the other, but this is a false dichotomy which only serves to reinforce traditional gender roles (a tomboy is escaping the girly role assigned to her by adopting so-called masculine behavior, but she isn't necessarily questioning the validity of those roles). The really revolutionary thing is to recognize that these things aren't gendered at all.
About the Author:

Melissa Lipscomb lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Send feedback for Melissa to disturbance@austinmama.com and visit her blog


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