The other day, while we were late for something and frantically getting on shoes, my five-year-old daughter turned to me and said;
“Mama, what does it mean to act like a boy?”
And a million thoughts went through my head.
First off, what do I say to that? Do I know a satisfactory answer? Societal gender roles and constructs are such a pain, in my opinion — for adults, they often result in crude comments about where women “belong,” criticism of their driving skills, and so on. They also often result in men feeling the pressure to be “macho,” which usually means having no feelings except anger. They result in young girls being labelled and young boys being labelled, pink and blue, just like in Jac’s Target shopping trip. And these kinds of labels do more harm than good for most people, including girls who love Spider-Man and Princesses like my daughter.
Also, where did she hear that? Did someone tell her that she acts like a boy?! The way she worded it made it seem so, and in response to the thought the mother bear inside me instantly flared up. Who would say such a thing? Here she is, in the midst of a very identity-forming phase in her life, on the cusp of going to kindergarten and being exposed to kids and all the potential labels she could be branded with by them. This took me back to my own elementary school years — the confusion, the interspersing of kindness and cruelty, the desperation I had to be whatever anyone told me I was, so I could fit into some kind of category where I could belong. The weight of this can be immense, and now my little girl is being exposed to it. My head whirled.
And then I thought about her. What did she need from me in this moment? What could she work out on her own? I often find if I go on and on (which I am quite capable of doing), I lose her in a swirl of words, and lose the meaning of what I’ve been saying. Do I make this a big deal, do I make it casual, or do I follow her lead and make it as casual or as serious as she makes it? Do we cancel our plans and sit and talk the day away, talking about what it means to be a girl, what it means to be a boy, and how those differences only really show when you grow up a bit, but how it doesn’t mean that your behaviour has to fit into a certain category? Will this moment, and what I say in this moment, be something she remembers for the rest of her LIFE?!
All these thoughts funnelled through my head in a split second, like a smoothie being sucked through a straw too fast, leaving a very frozen brain. But even with this happening in my head, my face and voice were calm when I turned to her and said,
“Well, S, I don’t really think it means ANYthing. I mean, there’s no real set way for boys or girls to act — they can act however they want to and still be girls, or still be boys. It’s a very strange idea, isn’t it, that if you do one thing you are ‘acting like a boy,’ and another thing you are ‘acting like a girl’? It’s not really fair for a person to call somebody something they’re not because of how that person THINKS a boy should act, or a girl should act. And that could hurt that boy or girl, too, so it’s not really a nice thing to say. Does that make sense?”
She paused briefly, and then said, of course:
“Mama, how many feet do kitties have?”
And with that, we moved on to a discussion of kitties, and then puppies, and then leafs, and trampolines, and then cars, and then her ice cream preference, and so on and so forth. Did my little nugget of wisdom make it through the puppies and kitties and ice cream? Maybe, maybe not. At any rate, it looks like I’ll be doing some more research on how cars work, because I think I flunked that one quite badly.