On raising girls

85bc2939362f5a3a8173aa9d03df5da0My three-year-old loves her doctor’s kit. Today she insisted on knocking on the bedroom door with a rat-a-tat-tat, doctor’s bag in hand, before administering to the injured monkey on the bed.

She also loves making tea for everyone using her tea set. The oven made for her by her beloved Grandpa. Her wooden farm animals. Charlie and Lola. The Octonauts. Her tool kit so she can “fix things”. She wondered if Father Christmas might think she would like a train set. (He didn’t have enough warning, just in case you’re wondering. Also, he is not madly profligate.) And so, I must add, do all her little boy friends. Toy kitchens – from Ikea up – seem to be de rigeur in most households we know. Every child who visits Alex’s house is obsessed with the toy washing machine.

Last night, we were reading a new book before bed – a rather saccharine tale about a rabbit who goes to a birthday party. Said party is fancy dress – with princesses and fairies in attendance. The rabbit wants to wear a fairy dress (of course she does), so I asked, “Which costume would you like to wear?” “That one,” she said, pointing to the cowboy. “It’s fun.” Atta girl.

Of course, she’s three, and fickle: tomorrow she might fall in love with princesses and dolls – she already displays deep concern when her baby doll doesn’t wear a hat. If she does, so be it – I am pretty sure we can wave fairy wands with as much enthusiasm as we attend stair picnics (a big thing in our house), staff the shop and administer to our sick animals. But for now, I am happy to resist the pinkification of our lives.

So why are toys so gendered? There are pastel building blocks (what’s wrong with bright primary colours for either sex?); Duplo and Lego specifically for girls (sickly shades; sicklier characters); and God help us when she gets older: Strawberry Shortcake – who I remember being round and freckled, is now lithe of limb and flowing of locks. Clover Stroud wrote an excellent, thought-provoking article about this very subject for Stella Magazine.

Last year, I read Steve Biddulph’s Raising Girls. (Follow-up to – can you guess – Raising Boys). Some of it is a bit, well, woolly, but much of it is insightful, inspiring and useful. He is, essentially, the antithesis of corporate modernism. Spend more time with your children; limit television and tablet use (um, even in the car on long journeys, Steve?); teach your girls to be secure in themselves; encourage dirty knees and exploration; encourage them to find their ‘spark’. When it comes to toys he is emphatic: “Avoid anything aimed just at girls. The world does that quite enough already.”

He is also keen that we address how we speak to girls. “I am sure that no parent ever sets out to disadvantage their girls…” he writes. “Yet we unconsciously start making the boys practical and the girls emotionally focused. So here’s a suggestion, perhaps we ought to reverse this.” It reminded me of this brilliant article which I bookmarked and go back to every so often, lest I forget. The central tenet of Lisa Bloom’s argument is that we should refrain from telling little girls how adorable they are, how much we love their hair bows, their dress, their shoes. Instead, ask about them: what they’re thinking; what they want to do today, tomorrow; their favourite book. (We talk a LOT about books in our house.)

Does this make a difference when your child is three? I don’t know. I hope so.

We’d love to hear about your girls: what do they love? How do you talk to them? Do you try and steer them away from princesses and pink, or is it better to give in gracefully to the onslaught? Opinions and advice are, as always, welcome.d739ad8a9524806f22f659c694419352

Images: Petit Bateau and Bonpoint

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  • Reply
    January 8, 2014 at 1:11 pm

    Other half of W&W here! I think that boys also face pressure to be a certain way when growing up. Society says they have to be tough, to like ‘boy’ things like football, to not show their feelings and as teenagers be sexually active early, aggressively so even, when perhaps they are as unready for it and as scared by the thought of it as some girls.

    In some ways girls are at an advantage because they are encouraged to be emotional and express their feelings, whereas in many ways boys aren’t. This I think causes great problems later on and is perhaps why young men have the highest suicide rate of all. Also, a girl who is into football or traditional ‘boys’ toys’ isn’t looked down upon, whereas a boy who likes ballet or traditional ‘girls’ toys’ can be stigmatised because of it. Just think, calling a girl a tomboy isn’t an insult, but calling a boy ‘girlie’ is…

    Good male and female role models are key for both genders (and I do count my lucky stars that I was a 90s teenager when grungey role models meant that doc martins, jeans, shirts and little in the way of make-up were cool and not today when miles cyrus and the horrendous kardashians are in vogue), as I think is getting out and about in nature, building camps, playing in mud and building confidence through physical activities as well as reading, drawing etc. And, ‘Girl’ toys? With enough of the former I don’t think they’re too much to worry about – I was a hardcore short-haired tomboy who refused to wear a skirt point blank and was wedded to a horse for much of my childhood – it didn’t stop things evening out and me embracing my female side by late teenagehood (says the long-haired, fashion loving, skirt adoring older me….) xx

  • Reply
    January 8, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    Thank you, Natasha. I’m not yet a mother but when I am (fingers crossed!) I will definitely do all that I can to make sure my children aren’t forced into gender-specific roles through toys, books, clothes etc. because as you point out, there’s enough of that in the world anyway!

  • Reply
    Sarah Cooper-White
    January 8, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    My daughter is also three and after a very tiring few months trying to steer her away from all things excessively girly; sparkly princess dresses, wands, pink tutus, pink pink pink I eventually gave in. I couldn’t take the tantrums and the fighting anymore. Not only does she LOVE pink (and purple), she won’t wear anything other than a dress and tights and goes most places with a tiara and jewels on. Last year when she was two I dressed her in navy and breton tops and she looked oh so chic. This year she constantly looks like an extra from a Disney/Barbie movie. It just seems to be IN her. She loves playing with babies, cooking, loading the dishwasher, hoovering, washing – all the typical stereotypes associated with ‘women’s work’. It baffles me at times as I certainly haven’t encouraged her. I was never than girly when I was little but I think if it makes her happy and that is what she enjoys then what’s there to fight. She has boy cousins so also loves playing with footballs, trains and watching Spiderman, but at home she just feels happy being a proper girly girl.

  • Reply
    January 8, 2014 at 7:22 pm

    I love the Lisa Bloom article and the points raised by you both. It is such an interesting topic, thank you.
    I have a little girl (now 8) and a little boy (now 7). My son spent a lot of time dressed up as a princess while my daughter was much more likely to be found in the garden digging in the mud. While this has reversed somewhat in the last year I have tried to never steer them towards playing with gender specific toys partly because the toy cupboard is such a mess and partly because I want them to be free to play with what they are interested in and choose. My daughter does now gravitate towards sparkly nail varnish but she is usually followed by her brother…I guess when they are so young their home environment is so important and we have to be mindful of what they can hear and see, from advertising on the tv to magazines promoting endless diets, even if we feel it is not directed at them or that they have not noticed.
    I think, as parents, probably the most important things we can do for our girls (and our boys) is model the behaviour and the world we want them to see. If we can be strong role models with flexible roles both in and outside the home we are showing them that our roles are not gender specific however traditional our setup. We can show them great female and male role models, engage with their emotions and hopefully guide them towards feeling unfettered by traditional distinctions, being judged by their looks or prowess in the gym…It is important for them to know it is ok to not be perfect, that they are good enough as they are and their individuality is something to be cherished and explored, regardless of their gender and including their love of all things pink or blue, princesses or mud!

  • Reply
    January 9, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    Loving these thoughts. (And the abandoned bretons made me chuckle because I know I much I would lament their loss!)
    I’ve always secretly suspected life is harder for boys (especially come the teenage years).

    Claire, I love the point about trying to be the best role models we possibly can (and watching out for the insidious influence of advertising).

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