Wednesday, February 05, 2003

Gender (e)Qualities

Only very seldom do I hear responses to Chicken Blog. This morning when I proofread yesterday's entry, I felt compelled to make a commentary on my own writing. Having written two sentences about girls in the community center classes, and sounding disappointed, I think it is best to elaborate on the issue. Bear with me, as I am only just formulating my reasoning and I don't have time to rewrite.

Okay. So even I thought the piece had a hint of girl bashing, or perhaps it suggested that William and Alex don't like girls. Our issue with the dance class was not that there were only girls in it, but with the fact that Alex was not welcome. The teacher deliberately arranged her program for girls only, but never bothered to mention this fact in the course description. As she welcomed students in and smiled warmly at the youngsters, she looked Alex over and carried on without him. He got the unspoken message, and was immediately too uncomfortable to even consider giving it a try.

Maybe he had flashbacks to his tennis class. In this class of boys and girls, Alex was shocked and dismayed to find that the three girls in attendance were mean. They taunted boys and teased with unkind name calling and criticism. The girls, no better players than the boys, mocked the boys' playing. It was not subtle. I could hear them clearly, and so could their parents and the coach. It seems that the behavior was acceptable. Alex said, "Those children are so rude. I try to stay away from them, so I can have fun in tennis."

I refuse to make blanket statements about boys or girls. I like to see the individual and recognize each person for their contributions attitudes and behaviors. Unfortunately, I have collected a dozen or more anecdotes about little girls who tease, bully, berate and overstep the bounds of socially acceptable behavior. Or have they overstepped the bounds of what our society finds acceptable? I fear that we are witnessing a cultural backlash against the traditional notion that boys are 'stronger, braver, better' and rather than only empowering girls with confidence in their own strengths and abilities we have begun to accept a culture of boy bashing. It's great that more girls are free from the labels and expectations that constrained them, but if my boys are still expected to have the manners of "little gentlemen," then I expect no less of the "little ladies." As it is, there must be an unwritten rule that assumes my boys are tough enough to be verbally abused by girls, and that it is okay for girls to call boys names and make stereotypical remarks about their gender and abilities, and even to physically hurt them. Sure, we have come across boys that misbehave or are rude, but it rarely goes unpunished. In every instance where I have witnessed mean behavior from a girl, the child is never corrected.

Last week Max was playing on a playground sculpture. Families love to stop and take pictures of their children on this art piece; children love to hug it and climb all over it. Another family joined Max to play on the rhino, and the girls in this family begged to have their picture taken. "We're out of film," was the reply. No need to get Max out of the shot, since they won't be taking a picture. One of the girls gave Max a little shoulder shove and hissed, "Won't you get out of here? You're totally ruining our picture!" I was stunned that a little child could muster such an ugly tone and attitude. So unexpected and cold were her remarks that Max meekly tried to utter an apology, but was first overcome with frustrated tears. My main concern was to console him, but I also had an ear open, listening for her parents to scold her rude comments or too make some gesture of humility. Nothing was offered.

Girls need and deserve empowering. Girls are entitled to pride and praise for their innate gifts, skills and promise, but this tells only half the story. We are not humans when we do not include both genders in consideration of respect, opportunity and acceptance. It is when we exclude by gender, race or shoe size that we as a society miss out on the opportunity to be stronger, brave, better, and kinder. Children, boys and girls, are entitled to self pride and loving praise. Children deserve to be defended from taunting and harassment on equal terms.

Feminism is poorly served when it depends on debasing boys. So, as much as I love driving a truck, I will never post a sticker that says, "Silly boys, trucks are for girls." And even though I think girls are great, I don't think they 'rule' to the exclusion or subjugation of boys. I hope to stop hearing mothers say "my girls don't like boys and won't play with them" or "boys are so loud (rough, mean, rude, messy, icky," fill in the blank...I have heard all of these.) I could not casually or carelessly accept it if my boys chose to dismiss half of humanity, or any fraction, based on generalizations. I never liked the phrase "boys will be boys;" it is used as an excuse for harmful or ridiculous behavior from boys, as though boys are made to be bad. I hope we don't start adopting an equally injurious phrase and attitude for girls. William, Alex, and Max like and respect children. They play and work with boys, girls, men, and women. And Geoff and I will continue to praise their skills and ambitions, and nurture their kindness and respect for all people.

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