Changing the Narrative: Gender Roles in Play

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Recently some friends of mine who are parents of girl the same age as Myles (2 years old) told me they wanted to call me while they were in Target recently. Their daughter loves Thomas the Train but when they showed her shoes with Thomas on them she said “no, those are boys shoes”. This upset them because she should be able to like whatever she wants regardless of her gender and wanted to know what I would have said or done in that situation. If you’ve kept up with my blog you know that I have introduced my two boys to all the colors and all types of toys from day one. I don’t just give them “boy’s toys” or tell them they can’t play with “girl’s toys”. Toys are for everybody! 

So, I told them the story of the day when Jackson came home from his brand new preschool at age 3 and started identifying toys “for boys” or “for girls”. I got angry. Here was this school teaching my son these rigid and oppressive gender roles I had worked so hard to protect him from. I shouldn’t have been surprised I guess (because patriarchy), but the moment I heard him do this I thought “Noooooooo!” and couldn’t help but snap back “no, toys are for everybody!”. I quickly checked my anger at the teachers and re-explained to Jackson that he could like whatever he wanted to like, no matter what other people might tell him. So, my initial reaction wasn’t great, but I quickly recovered. I had work so hard to create an environment for him where he could be who he truly is and like whatever the hell caught his fancy and I didn’t want them to ruin it for him. In hindsight I see this was his first test of what he’s been taught at home and with some guidance and support he felt confident again to like whatever he wanted.

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Jackson with his new favorite book series, the Guardian Princesses.

I told my friends that they just needed to reinforce a nurturing home environment where she could be who she really is and like what she likes and encourage dialogue about these types of things. That way when instances like this come up and they’re not around, she will feel comfortable asking about them and they can help her to navigate these archaic social constructs. Jackson and I talk about everything. I started telling him “let me explain” from a very young age so now he asks me to “explain” everything. Recently he asked me to explain why the radio stations “played 100 songs by boys but only 1 by a girl”. (On a side note, I usually play music from my iTunes for him because I have more female artists for him to learn about. He’s currently obsessed with Taylor Swift.) I have worked hard to give Jackson (and also Myles) the tools he needs to work through out-dated restrictive gender rules and stereotypes so he can be his true self.

Something else I do is teach him to create his own stories. Not all the books, TV shows or movies we come across have a feminist plot, obviously (because patriarchy). Girls are often left out completely or they are included as one token character. He’s at the point now where he will ask “how come there aren’t any (is only one) girl characters”. They’re also usually the ones needing to be rescued instead of being their own hero. We create stories where girls are smart, strong, capable, funny, etc. just like real girls.

Then there’s the violence that comes in most toys marketed to boys. When characters such as Lego figures come with swords in those little blind bags, I ask him what he thinks that tool is and what its for. Recently he told me a spear was actually a key that opens everything and a sword was actually a stick for roasting marshmallows. We also come up with stories where characters take turns saving the day (not just male characters) and work together to solve problems. We talk a lot about how it’s not good to be violent or hurt people so this exercise allows him to change the narrative to something more positive. Sometimes he will come across new characters, like the Ninja Turtles, and act out things he’s learned from the other kids at school, like saying “hiyah!” and waving his arms around. I just explain to him that he is simulating fighting and help him to understand that would mean he was hurting someone and how that is not nice.

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Mechagodzilla and Ariel having a playdate.

When I read him stories before bed sometimes I’ll change words or phrases to make them less violent or patriarchal. When we watch new TV shows or movies together I say things like “that wasn’t nice” or “that’s not good” when scenes of someone getting hurt or hurting another pop up. He’s at the point now where I don’t have to do that for him. He’ll just look at me, shake his head and say “that’s not nice”. He’s even able to identify bad behavior in real life with other kids and knows to avoid it.

We talk a lot about gender. I asked him one day what gender is and he said “it’s a feeling”. He also told me that the little girl down the street said “boys can’t be pretty” but he told her “That’s not true. I’m the prettiest boy in the world.” He then proceeded to invite her over to play “even though she doesn’t understand gender”. She asks him why he has “girl toys” and he just tells her he likes all kinds of toys. He’s confident enough now in what he likes that he just laughs off those kinds of questions as if they’re silly. Besides, she doesn’t seem to mind being able to play with all different kinds of toys at our house.

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“Let me tell you the storyline, Momma.” Playing Legos with Jackson

It’s an ongoing effort to help him figure out how to be himself in a world that wants him to fit into little boxes or perform one version of masculinity that is not healthy. Traditional gender roles hurt boys too. It tells them they shouldn’t have emotions (which all humans naturally have) and to solve conflicts with violence. It tells them they have to act tough all the time. I can’t wait to see the new documentary “The Mask You Live In” to see what they have to say about healthy and unhealthy masculinity nowadays.

I have my work cut out for me. I’m in no way done helping him to understand the world or work through issues he encounters. I doubt I’ll ever be done. But that’s what parenting is about, right? While I may not have all the answers for how to parent from a feminist perspective, I feel pretty good about the job I’m doing making it up as I go along.

What experiences have you had trying to raise your child without rigid gender roles?

(This post appeared on on 1/14/15.)

2 thoughts on “Changing the Narrative: Gender Roles in Play

  1. This is an awesome post. I always loved playing with Transformers as a child, I think that this post is a great way to remind people that toys as well as other things can be for anyone!


  2. Pingback: FMB Link Love - Fabulous Mom Blog

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