A few weeks ago I wrote a post titled “Early Childhood Learning is About Parents.” That turned into a discussion about how to deal with the fact that children learn by imitating the people who take care of them. Today I want to look at the same issue from another angle. Children also learn from whatever larger culture they happen to be born into. They don’t just imitate the people who feed and clothe them. They also imitate people they encounter at school and people they see on television. In this post I’ll share a couple of anecdotes about things I’ve had to do to try and counteract attitudes with my six-year-old grandson that could turn into sexism if we didn’t talk about them honestly.
First, a conversation we had in a McDonald’s a few months ago. We were on the road and stopped there to take a break. A family with three small children was there. One of the children was a girl, but we couldn’t tell that for sure. We could only see their backs. The girl had long hair, but was dressed in exactly the same style as her brothers. From where we were standing, she could have been a long-haired little boy. The three of them were looking at the display of happy meal toys and talking about which ones they liked. Here’s a conversation I had with my grandson, who was watching them intently.
Grandson: Is that a girl or a boy?
Me: I can’t tell from here, but a girl, I think.
Grandson: She has long hair . . .
Me: That doesn’t mean anything. Some boys have long hair. I used to have hair that long.
Grandson: I don’t think that’s a girl. They’re all wanting the toys that are for boys.
Me: Some girls like the ones that are for boys better. And look at those toys. The ones they’re wanting are cooler than those ones that are supposed to be for girls.
Grandson: That can’t be a girl. Look at the shoes! (He’s referring to a pair of orange running shoes, identical to the ones the boys are wearing).
Me: Dude! You can’t tell if someone’s a girl just by looking at their tennis shoes. Girls like all kinds of colors.
I understand the confusion about the hair. He’s not seen that many men with long hair aside from celebrities. The jumping to the conclusions about the preference in toys and the color of the shoes really bugs me, though. The thing that bothers me most about it is that those are such natural assumptions, and I think they’re such natural assumptions because of the way consumer goods are marketed on television. We picked up our order and got back on the road, but that conversation continued while we drove the next 20 miles. It went on for so long because I had to make sure he understood that not all girls want the pink shoes and the toys that are marketed for girls, even though there’s nothing wrong with those things.
The second thing I’ve noticed is that he responds to female authority figures differently than he responds to male authority figures. He’s a high-spirited, sassy little dude. Under the best circumstances, he takes a lot of wrangling and he doesn’t like to be told what to do. But he doesn’t roll his eyes at me or answer my questions in a dismissive tone of voice nearly so often as he does that to my wife, Vicki.
I’ve been observing this for a while now. There are lots of differences in the way Vicki and I deal with him, but none that should cause him to be more dismissive of her authority than he is of mine. Vicki’s not a passive person at all, and she commands respect. Even so, I’ve had to have conversations with him about it at times and let him know, specifically, that we expect him to show his mother and his grandmother the same respect he shows me and his dad.
Now, undoubtedly he’s learned some of that attitude from watching people who aren’t as sensitive to this stuff as me, but I think he’s learned a lot of it from television. That’s troubling, because there’s no real escape from mass media. Even if I were willing to unplug all the devices and only allow him a movie every once in awhile, that wouldn’t be good for him. Understanding technology and being able to talk about movies, tv shows, etc. are both key parts of literacy, so just shutting off the mass media would put him at a disadvantage. And no matter how well you vet the programs themselves, you can’t control the advertisements. That’s a problem, if you’re a feminist and you’re trying to get a young child off to a good start in life, because advertisements are very much a mixed bag.
I’m curious to know how other people might handle situations like this. Is there anything I can do, other than being hypervigilant and talk about these sorts of things when they occur?