Originally published: 02.06.16
Do people still ask children what they want to be when they grow up? It’s not a question I’m aware of hearing these days; perhaps because the answer: “heavily in debt and renting till I retire at 94” is too guilt-engendering for the adult in question to cope with.
Shopping for children’s clothes last week, though, I saw that Next have grasped the nettle…sort of. Among the varicoloured bits of jersey were two T-shirts which flirted with the idea of one’s destiny in life:
Spot the difference?
A throwaway tweet got picked up and shared a lot later on. Some of the comments that came in – several of the characters are women; the Minecraft one comes in other primary colours; we buy my daughter’s clothes from the boys’ department – were true, and I worried that I was guilty of an overreaction; of espying bias and agendas where none are intended. After all, Next – to their credit – had some pinkified Star Wars tops in the girls’ range, so there was a bit more nuance than the two opposites I had picked on might suggest.
The thing is, though, that this stuff does matter. A T-shirt here or there might not make a tremendous amount of difference, but the drip-feed really does.So too does the rigid division from birth onwards of what belongs to each sex. Of course a girl could wear the Minecraft T-shirt above, but the fact is that many girls won’t, purely because it is displayed in the boys’ section and because they have the notion of what is rightfully theirs drilled into them from such an early age.
It’s not a novel observation that children’s lives are increasingly divided along gender lines of somebody else’s drawing. Clothes are pink or blue, purposeful or sparkly, practical or decorative. Toys – even the supposedly neutral options – come in two colour ways; doubtless to maximise revenue from discouraging hand-me-downs, but driving nonetheless an ever deeper consciousness of what belongs to “us” as opposed to what belongs to “them”. Do you think I’m over-exaggerating? You didn’t see the reaction of my then-3 -year-old son on holiday, discovering that the mattress protector he’d slept on all week was pink.
Children, by their very nature, generally want to conform. They are primed to observe, mimic and assimilate the structures and rules of the society in which they live. There is nothing innate about using a toilet, or cutting up food with a knife and fork, but we expect it as a given of a child entering Reception. Is it really such a huge jump to suggest that if we tell them that a certain set of attributes are theirs, that they are somehow therefore required to have them in order to fit in?
So perhaps it’s up to parents to counteract this pressure. Well, yes, but doing so against a whole culture which tells them otherwise is almost impossible. Although we had doubtless been guilty of buying our son clothes and toys marketed at boys, we’d certainly never banned him from pink or given him to understand that it was somehow lethal to his very being.
On one level, this is little more than a bewailing of a particularly virulent form of capitalism. Standard advice for those who find it problematic has always been to tell children that there’s no such thing as boys’ toys or girls’ toys, any more than we’d tell them certain jobs are just for men, or a particular way of being just for women. Which works, to an extent, right up until children also start hearing that the things that they like somehow in fact define who they are.
My 8yo daughter, in some ways all things “girly”, has a passion for playing with cars. Her latest birthday list features a kitten, new hair accessories, a go-kart and “new modern cars” to go on her car mat. An older relative, seeing her list, made a throwaway comment that she was a tomboy. She gave him a slightly funny look, then went off, in her sequinned leotard, to watch YouTube instructions on French plaits.
Later that night, though; curled up next to me on the sofa, there came in a quiet voice: “Am I half a boy?”. She’s seen CBBC programmes, after all, about boys who come back to school after the summer holidays in a dress and hair bows; girls suddenly allowed to join the boys’ team in exchange for a buzz cut and a new name. Of course there is more to all of this than that, but she is eight. That’s all she sees.
In fewer years than I care to calculate, the differences for my daughter will become less about which pages she’ll fold over in the toy catalogue; which range of clothes she picks her jeans from. Her body will change, and with it, the way the world sees and treats her. She will have to run the gamut of periods; of body hair and breasts and those who think they make her a form of public property to be assessed and appropriated. She’ll learn that if she goes out into the world with her brothers, she’ll be held to a different standard of behaviour; judged against a different set of codes if God forbid, things should go wrong.
None of this is new, of course. Nor does it mean that I think that boys breeze easily into manhood. But she is one of the first generation to hear another message alongside all of this; that if she finds what’s assigned to her restrictive, if she chafes at the confinement or even finds herself reaching more naturally for flat shoes and trousers and a slick of suncream rather than a full face of contouring, that she isn’t actually a girl after all.
These are deep waters, I know. I freely admit to a kind of ignorance here; a muddy sense of confusion between where opinions from the reading I’ve done meet prejudices and fears I may not be wholly conscious of. I don’t know where we draw the line between teaching children that being different is ok, while ensuring that there is adequate support for those who need it. How we ensure that children have vocabulary and confidence to express what threatens their wellbeing, while not adding to all the causes that might threaten it in the first place. The truth is, this is new to most of us, not least our children themselves.
Maybe it’s no wonder we’ve stopped asking what they want to be when they grow up, after all.
Head in Books: I write about politics, predominantly on issues which affect parenting, children andeducation.