book review: Parenting beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes

Looking for a good, short, easy-to-read introduction to gender stereotyping in children’s lives–how common it is, how it works, why it matters, what to do about it? You should check out Christia Spears Brown‘s new (2014) book Parenting beyond Pink and Blue.

This book covers some of the same material as books like Cordelia Fine’s awesome Delusions of Gender, but in a more practical-minded, action-in-parenting way. Brown engages scholarly research in an utterly nonthreatening, accessible, and personal way. Readers who wouldn’t enjoy geeking out over the neuroscience gossip (or who just want a tighter parents-oriented focus) might be well-served by Brown’s briefer treatment.

(If, on the other hand, you just can’t get enough of this stuff, start with Fine and then go back for a very different approach with Emily Kane’s book The Gender Trap. Then let’s get coffee and geek out over gender research together.)

Parents who have read and/or thought a ton about resisting sexism probably already follow most … or all … of this book’s practical tips. It includes the strategies you might expect:

  • providing toys and experiences without reference to a child’s gender
  • using less gender-emphasizing language (no “good morning, boys and girls!” or “you’re such a pretty girl!” or even “look at that man”)
  • talking with both boys and girls about both mathematical concepts and emotions
  • examining your own knee-jerk stereotypes
  • and so on

But as a primer, it could work beautifully.

For any audience, I especially appreciate Brown’s very clear and engaging accounts of academic concepts like effect size (key to interpreting the meaningfulness of differences between vs. within groups) and stereotype threat. These sorts of ideas are so important but can feel like abstract jargon to lots of parents/people.

I’ll end with one caveat:

This book takes the position that gender is, like height, “biological, obviously, and unchangeable” (207). The sidebar on “When Children Want to Be the Other Gender” (153) is affirming in encouraging parents to take depression seriously and offer support and help, to accept children as they are without reference to gender and gender stereotypes, and to make sure their children know “they can dress how they want, play with what they want, and be friends with whomever they want.” At the same time, the whole thing seems to take a hope-they-grow-out-of-it approach that makes me really uncomfortable and excludes trans* folks and everybody who doesn’t live within the gender binary.

On a broader note (or to put it another way), the book largely accepts that there are two boxes (boy/girl, man/woman) and … although it does awesome work insisting that the categories are far from opposites, that they overlap immensely and have huge within-group diversity, that their nature is culturally constructed and variable, etc. … it doesn’t question the two-box system itself.

Disney’s Frozen: wtf?

Oh, is it kind of late in the game to write about the “new” Disney Princess movie? The one whose theatrical release was in, oh, let me see, nine months ago?

Eric and I have been in the running for Last Parents in The United States to See the Movie Frozen. Since our library copy arrived on the hold shelf last week, we have now joined the rest of our young-child-having kind. (We did not, however, watch the movie with any children: we watched it over popcorn and cocktails after their bedtime.)

So I get that I’m a little behind the times here, but I still just need to say: what the fuck was that?!? After the film ended, I looked over at Eric and said, well, that sort of sucked. I don’t know where I got this idea, but I kind of expected it to have more good points: to be, like, basically coherent or something. It had fun moments, for sure, but:

  • Wow the terrible music. Most of the songs are just … bad.
  • IT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE! How is a regency not established between the death of the parents and the coming-of-age and coronation of the new monarch? Who the fuck has been running the kingdom in the meantime? Just, like, no one? If so, why does Prince Hans need to be left “in charge” when Anna splits? If not, why isn’t the person who’s been ruling trying to maintain power rather than turning it over to some random foreign dude? How do the sisters know anything? Where is their governess or tutor? If they never go outside, which the visuals certainly imply, how does Anna know how to ride a horse? Etc. Why does Anna care about her sister at all? If they last spoke to each other, like, when Anna was an age of which she would have few memories … and then Elsa has been cold and awful to her for her entire life … where is this deep spiritual love connection from? How is Anna able to wander around the city alone, and then with the random foreign dude? Really, she has no governess or lady-in-waiting or anybody paying attention to where she is? In what universe would everybody just accept, without question, as a new monarch, this foreign guy who stepped foot in the kingdom for the first time less than twenty-four hours ago and who claims to have just conveniently married the monarch’s little sister, without witnesses? I mean really. Oh, okay, you’re the king! Long live you! And many many more plot holes and strange leaps of faith.
  • The “fixer-upper” song? Just no. No no no. The weird ass-covering in the middle about how you can’t really change someone … oh but true love can … just makes matters worse. Because they knew and they went there anyway.
  • What is any character’s motivation? Are these, like, people? And what’s with the sisters’ parents? Was Disney too weeny to make them outright abusive (which seems, given the apparent utter lack of external cultural knowledge/experience in the girls’ lives, the only reasonable explanation for Elsa’s extreme self-loathing and need for control)? Why does Anna believe/assume that “eternal winter” is what’s happening after like twenty minutes of snow? What the fuck is going on?

Okay, but do you know what’s AWESOME about Frozen? Olaf the snowman is awesome. (Actually, the “do you wanna build a snowman?” song is pretty good, too.)

And do you know why Olaf is awesome?

Because it makes sense for him not to understand anything or make any sense. In a movie that borders on the surreal but doesn’t seem to know that, Olaf just is surreal and silly. He’s not meant to have cultural context or depth: he literally was born yesterday. As he points out charmingly, he doesn’t even have a skull. He’s the best.

I finally understand why all the advertising for Frozen made it look more like a comedy about this minor nonhuman character who doesn’t even show up until way far into the movie, rather than a drama about an ice queen and a pretender to the throne and True Love and stuff.

book review: Motherhood and Feminism

In her book Motherhood and Feminism (2010), Amber E. Kinser offers an excellent, broad, and amazingly concise overview of how feminism has interacted with motherhood, mothering, and related experiences/concepts/issues/roles.

Kinser takes a feminist and historical approach to this material. She leads readers chronologically from the 1800s through the present day of the book’s 2010 publication. Her attention to issues of race and class–and to diverse actors on the overlapping stages of feminism, women’s movements, mothers’ movements, motherhood, and caregiving–proved very helpful to me as I put together a draft of my own book manuscript’s introduction. She asks good questions from a curious and engaged perspective.

A side note: It’s funny (and kind of sad) how may of the big websites she discusses no longer exist four years later! Writing about online sources is a tricky thing.

Why don’t my children call me “Mom”?: on first names and family

Among the many weird things we’ve done as parents, one stands out as having seemed like a non-issue to Eric and me … but perhaps the biggest deal to other people. For context’s sake, this is in comparison with: out-of-hospital births, giving the children their own made-up last name, vehemently rejecting (and talking openly about) gender ‘rules,’ not participating in a church/religious community, homeschooling because our oldest child wanted to, keeping a vegetarian household, using cloth diapers, failing to obtain a stroller, breastfeeding well past infancy, the works.

That one standout weird act was not teaching our children to call us Mom and Dad, or Mommy/Mama/etc. and Daddy/Dada/etc.

We didn’t even really talk about it. It wasn’t particularly principled.

I was just like, “It weirds me out how parents talk about themselves in the third person. I cannot say ‘mommy doesn’t like biting!,’ I will lose my shit. See also: other adults calling me Mommy. No, nuh-uh. If you ever refer to me as Mommy our marriage will die a terrible death right there on the floor, due to blech yucky. How about we drop the whole training thing and let them call us what they call us?” He was like, “Cool. Want some salad?”

We figured our first child might switch to Mom/Dad when it became clear that other children call their parents that, and felt it would be fine, whatever.

At the time, Eric often called me by a pet name. So Noah started out calling Eric by his first name (well, a version of it; many children find “Eric” really hard to pronounce!) and me by that pet name. Around age 3 he realized other people always called me Molly or Professor Westerman and switched to Molly full-time. I loved it; I still love it; it’s like he’s really talking to me. Simon has learned language around Noah and everybody else calling us Molly and Eric, so of course he does too.

Our children also call everybody else by their first names, a decision that was on purpose because A) “what will they call Eric’s mother? Molly’s mother? Molly’s stepmother?” and the corresponding questions for menfolk seemed unnecessarily complicated and fraught and B) we are definitely anti teaching our children to “respect adults” by automatically using titles/surnames while being called by their own first names … because hierarchy and power.

As it turns out, instead of switching to Mom/Dad because it’s normal (as we expected pre-parenting), Noah developed a strong preference for using our first names and for having other adults refer to us that way, too. He corrects “your mom” to “Molly.” I suspect this is partly because this is our intimate family reality we’re talking about here, and partly because he knows it’s okay to be weird, and partly because we de-emphasize gender. I don’t identify as “a mother” but as one of his parents, he prefers people to use Simon’s name rather than prattling on about brothers, he bristles at being lumped together with Simon as “the boys” (even though we’ve never actually said anything about that to him). Mom/Dad are neither labels nor even roles in our household, a reality that seems to matter to Noah too.

Of course, other people’s concerns about mass chaos and confusion (How will he understand when people asks where his daddy is? How will the other preschoolers ever understand his stories about home?) proved baseless, because language actually works really well and children understand synonyms and stuff. Everybody kept up just fine. I can only imagine how frustrating this How will your children fit in? But you’ll CONFUUUSE PEOPLE! crap is for families who don’t fit the Husband-Wife-Children mold.

And me? How have I felt about this?

No one seemed to think it would matter much for Eric, but I definitely got some pressure along the lines of “But the best moment in life is the first time your child looks up at you and says ‘I love you, Mommy’!”

As it turns out, any version of “I love you” is pretty sweet.

Hearing your child murmur your name is pretty sweet.

The sweet bits of parenting don’t depend on such tiny details.

Whether a child realizes you are his or her parent–his or her rock, his or her source of absolute love, his or her huge fan, his or her safe place–doesn’t, either.

For a flippant decision, it’s been a remarkably good one for us. We like the linguistic acknowledgement that we’re all having relationships with each other as individuals rather than as roles. (After all, it would seem odd and cold if we always called Noah “Child,” “Son,” or perhaps “Firstborn.”) Our children see that different families think about family differently, and that there are lots of options for how families can look and operate. And it’s been interesting and instructive to discover how important these kinship-names are to so many other people around us.

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