I admit it – I didn’t think it would happen to me. Not so soon, anyway. OK, never, but if she were in high school or something I might have been less surprised. Yesterday, however, I was totally unprepared. Out of the blue, Lucy said to me, “girls like to do sweet things, but boys don’t.” Whoa.
Remain calm, I told myself. She’s only five. There’s no need to go into a diatribe about patriarchy and entrenched roles and sex versus gender.
“What do you mean?” I asked cautiously.
She shrugged. Clearly she didn’t really know what this meant, but had heard it somewhere and was testing it out.
“I think different people like to do different things,” I said, “but it doesn’t matter if they’re boys or girls.”
She looked at me pityingly. “Of course it matters if they’re boys or girls,” she said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because girls are sweet.” Again with the sweet. Ew.
“Most people are sweet sometimes,” I said, “but I don’t think anyone is sweet all the time.” It was all I could do to say the word without scorn in my voice. Who wants to be sweet? is what I was really thinking.
“Girls are sweet,” she insisted. So stubborn! So sure of her own opinion! Where did she get that? And – wait a minute – wasn’t the inclination and ability to defend her own opinion in the face of conflicting beliefs the very antithesis of the sweetness that was bothering me? OK, so she wasn’t exactly defending herself, but she wasn’t giving in. She wasn’t – ahem – being sweet.
I clearly remember when I was a child my mother asking me, on what I now understand were occasions on which I used a word or phrase not my own, “who do you know who says that?” I also clearly remember thinking the question absurd – I said that; hadn’t I just proved it? As a child, I was not self-aware enough to notice someone else’s vernacular infiltrating my own. By asking me to think about it, my mother taught me to pay attention to where my words and, by extension, my ideas were coming from. I sincerely doubt that I ever gave her an answer to that question, and certainly not a correct one. But as an adult I think about those things all the time: where do my ideas come from? Who do I believe? And why? If I can teach my children to think critically, it will serve them better than any indoctrination with my own beliefs. And, in a time when people still get elected to public office not believing that the planet is warming or that Darwin had a clue, it will serve the rest of the world better, too.
Is it alarming that a five-year-old is parroting gender stereotypes? You bet it is. Do I want to know where she heard that? I’m dying to know, because I’d be more than happy to unleash my diatribe on someone my own age. Do I think Lucy might grow up thinking that girls are sweet and boys aren’t? Not a chance. She knows how to think things through for herself, and, with a little guidance for a few more years, she’ll be a force to be reckoned with.