Everyday my daughter runs in from school, rushes right to her bedroom, and grabs her lovey — i.e. a severed animal head slapped on a small, satiny cloth. Yes, this toy is as terrifying as it sounds, but it is her toy. Everyday she snuggles it, every night she sleeps with it, and there isn’t an episode of Sesame Street or Mickey Mouse’s Clubhouse we watch without it. But one Tuesday she ran straight to Minnie. Don’t get me wrong, she scooped up “giraffey” on the way, but that was a habit. Taking Minnie was something new.
“Mickey! Mickey!” she exclaimed.
“No, honey; that’s Minnie. MIN-NIE. Min-nie Mouse. Minnie wears a dress and has a bow on her head; that’s how you know she is a…”
I froze. Mid-fucking-conversation, and I froze. Why? Because the words coming out of my mouth felt wrong. I mean, in theory they weren’t. Fact: Minnie does wear a dress and, another fact, Mickey doesn’t. But what I was saying — the way I was saying it — put me on edge.
I stopped, and I thought. How do I explain the difference between Minnie and Mickey to a two-year old? How do I have a gender neutral conversation without getting too technical or too sexual? How do I have a progressive conversation — a new(ish) conversation — while being pragmatic and age-appropriate?
I know what you may be thinking: Who the hell cares? You are blowing this out of proportion. This is a conversation about two cartoon characters, not two human beings. And you’d be right — perhaps on all accounts. But it is the beginning of a bigger conversation. It is the beginning of a huge and extremely important conversation.
You see, if I tell her boys wear pants and girls wear skirts — if I imply that long lashes and painted nails are for “women only” — I am teaching her there is a right way to “be a girl” and to “act like a woman” and a wrong way.
I am teaching her there is a right way to be a boy, a right way to become a man, and a wrong way.
I am perpetuating stereotypes.
Let me be clear: While I am a sloppy-ponytail-and-sneakers sort of gal, she can wear whatever she wants. She can sport dresses and kitten heels and (God help me) all pink, but so can boys.
Boys can play with makeup and Barbies and baby dolls, and girls can play with K’NEX, Ninja Turtles, and boxing gloves. But by saying Minnie is a girl because of the way she dresses and Mickey is a boy because of the way he appears, I am failing her. I am pigeon-holing her (and everyone else), and I am perpetuating the notion that you are as you appear.
I am telling her it is the exterior that matters and not the interior — not who she is.
I could avoid it. I could just say Minnie is a girl and Mickey is a boy — end of fucking discussion — but my daughter is curious. She will ask why. She will ask what makes them different. What makes boys and girls different. And, if she is like her father, she will probably ask me why the hell Donald Duck doesn’t wear pants. (Spoiler alert: I have no freakin’ idea!) And grand inquisition aside, there is another reason avoidance will not work for me: There is as much implied by silence as there is in ill-spoken or misspoken words, and she will still have questions — questions she will find someone else to answer.
As parents, it’s our job to teach our kids how become compassionate, empathetic, and respectful human beings. Sometimes that means we need to have conversations we aren’t quite comfortable with; sometimes that means we have to respond to questions we aren’t prepared to answer. But we have to be conscious of what we say and what we do, and we have to try, because we are responsible for helping them learn about the world.
Too often we handle these discussions — the tough discussions about sexuality, identity, equality, and gender — with gloves on. We try to simplify them or to avoid them, and in doing so, we often over complicate them.
And maybe that’s what I am doing, too. But I stopped the conversation. I thought about the conversation. Because it matters.
This conversation matters.
Researcher Elaine Blakemore of Purdue University explains that infants can tell the difference between males and females as early as their first year. What’s more, they begin forming gender stereotypes almost as soon as they know they are boys or girls, and adults often aren’t aware of how much they reinforce stereotyping by complimenting boys and girls in stereotypical ways (or in everyday conversations about two anthropomorphic mice).
So what am I doing? I’m thinking about it, talking about it, and fumbling my way through it. I’m getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Do I have “the answer”? No. If I did, I would surely write it here.
What I have is the most basic advice: Just think before you speak and before you act. You may not always “do it right,” and you surely will slip, but no matter how awkward the conversation may feel (or be), any conversation is better than no conversation.