Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Backpacks, Gender norms, and My Son

Yesterday, I had my first piece published on the Huffington Post. It's about my daughter's backpack.
The boy came down the hall just as I was arriving at preschool with my daughter, Ellie. In a voice filled with excitement, she said, "Michael [not his real name], come look at my new backpack! It's the Avengers!" Indeed it was, or at least the four male heroes. Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and the Hulk, in vivid color, charging forward to fight evildoers.
Michael responded with far too much skepticism for a 5-year-old boy. "You mean, you like Avengers? Or is that your brother's backpack?"
Ellie completely missed it. "No," she said, "My brother got Minions. I got Avengers!" Then she raised her arms in the air, blasting laser beams out of her hands at the bad guys, and ran off to her classroom. Evil doers, beware.
In the essay, I talk about parenting against the grain. It's not enough, I argue, to just provide choice, because all of society is telling children that they must conform, conform, conform. The process of gender norming accelerates once they start school. There is no free choice. Instead, we push gently against that dominant message, hoping to create enough space for Ellie to choose whatever she likes.

The clever reader will have noticed, "My brother got Minions." I've been repeatedly asked - what about boys? Do you push Nico towards Hello Kitty or whatever? Do you push boys against the grain too?

Off to school, backpacks rampant!
These are good questions. I, like my questioners, have the sense that a lot of people push girls towards boy stuff and push boys towards boy stuff too. Boy stuff is powerful! Girls wearing boy clothes are powerful! Boys wearing girl clothes ...?

The lack of balance reflects and intensifies the patriarchal nature of our society, rather than fighting it. On the other hand, I could never advise a parent to push a boy into a dress, because that's not a gentle parenting against the grain. That's trying to smash the barriers. The problem is that a girl in "boy clothes" is pretty standard. A boy in a dress is a target. How far should we go?

I have two thoughts.

First - "Against the grain" is about gentle pushing, not creating targets for bullying. For boys, I think, the key is to focus on behaviors. Soraya Chemaly, one of my favorite writers, writes about these issues a lot, such as in "the problem with boys will be boys." We need to enable our sons, we need to push our sons, to exhibit behaviors not typically associated with masculinity. When they cry, we need to comfort and love, not say, "boys don't cry." I think that's what parenting a boy against the grain looks like.

Second - I have no idea what parenting a boy against the grain looks like, because Nico has Down syndrome.

People with Down syndrome are by no means immune to gender norming, but Nico has very limited verbal skills. He's not getting the kind of language replication of gender norms that our daughter has been showing for years now. "Pink is a girl's color," she says. Nico is as likely to pick a pink, blue, purple, or orange bowl. Moreover, when he picks a bowl, our goal is to get him to say a two-word sentence like "purple bowl," rather than focusing on gender issues.

Moreover, our primary goal with Nico is to find things that stimulate him, and then push push push for reaction, speech, enjoyment, development, engagement. So whatever it is that grabs him, that's what we go for. We have played with baby dolls. We have played with trucks. Right now, though, it's a pretty equal balance between Frozen and Minions. You should see him stand in the middle of the room, swooping his arms around, singing to "Let it Go." I think the gender issues are going fine there.

Would I send my son to school in a Hello Kitty backpack? Absolutely. But I confess I'd be very nervous about it. Nico is already so marked as "other" by his disability and we - teachers, parents, Nico, his friends, his sister - work very hard to make sure that otherness doesn't become too pronounced. If he had picked one with Elsa, he'd be wearing it today.

But right now, Nico really likes minions.