I discovered Feminism at uni. I was a young 17 years of age and this new way of thinking opened up a whole new world for me. I was introduced to The Wymon’s Room (spelt to intentionally exclude the word ‘men’), Women’s Studies classes and the full range Feminist Lifestyles from lesbian separatists to liberal, equality-loving, normal-looking women. I was hooked.
It took me a while to figure out where I sat on the continuum of Feminist Thought. I swang from hating men to embracing everyone, and eventually settled in a moderate, open-minded non bra-burning place.
I always thought that if I ever had a child, I would encourage gender-neutral toys and play.
I remember my Mum saying that when I was little, if I chose to play with a truck, she would gently redirect me back to the dollies, the appropriate girl’s toys. This made my late teen, hormone-fuelled blood boil as I imagined my parents curbing my natural gender development. I thought they had done it all wrong and was sure I would be in therapy for years as a result #dramaticmuch
Now that my daughter Maddie is approaching 2 years of age and is developing a very strong will of her own, I’m encouraging her to make some of her own choices. Until recently, she would play with saucepans, brooms, blocks, bottles, cars, spoons, bras, dolls … any object she could grab would become a momentary obsession. But now she is showing signs of her own preferences and opinions, and not surprisingly (given who her parents are), they are clear and strong.
This week, I took Maddie to a toy shop. I had no agenda, no plans, we were just browsing. I let her go to explore and play, as I stood back and happily observed her wonder and curiosity.
Maddie made a bee line for two items in that toy shop – a handbag and a baby doll.
I was instantly transported back to my uni days and noticed my instinct to broaden her perspective and point her towards the cars, trucks and trains. But I didn’t, I just watched.
Maddie picked up two handbags and placed one over each shoulder. She then walked toward the doll section, perused the display and confidently made her selection. She picked up a brown-skinned newborn baby doll, kissed it on the head and embraced it to her chest as she said “babeeeeeeeyyy”. She had made her choice.
Now of course, Maddie has observed me carrying a handbag and experienced me embracing her as a baby over the past couple of years. Everyday, I role-model typical female behaviour for her and no doubt, I unconsciously reinforce her typical female behaviours. Each week, she spends quality time with my Mum for some old school Lady Lessons. She has watched her (all female) cousins dress up, play, embrace, sing, kiss and dance, and she has participated in family dance-parties with all the women folk in our family. She has no shortage of female role models.
She lives inside a giant, pink, femme-telligent socialisation experiment.
But is this WHY she is making gender stereotypical play choices? The nature/nurture debate has been on my mind this week as I ponder Maddie’s choices and reflect on my own role in her development.
I understand the argument of the Gender Neutral Play Movement, but I wonder if it’s a moot point.
What does the science say about female and male developing brains? Why do little boys naturally create guns and cars and trains out of rocks and sticks? And why do little girls nurture pet rocks and play make-up with mud?
There is something to be said for the biological roots of behaviour development. Science tells us that higher Testosterone levels in-utero have an impact on a child’s propensity to play in an assertive, sometimes aggressive way. As boys generally have higher levels of Testosterone, it naturally follows that they are drawn to games that allow them to enact their chemically driven need compete, dominate and win.
“There are supposed to be five characteristics of the male brain type: aggression, competition, self-assertion, self-confidence and self-reliance. All these are highly correlated with adult testosterone level, whether in men or women. The characteristics of the female brain type are better skills at language, sensory awareness, memory, social awareness and relationships.” (Source)
So, perhaps Maddie is not just responding to her highly feminised environment but is actually starting to live out her biological destiny. Or maybe she chooses dolls because her environment reinforces her hormonal drives?
Something tells me it’s probably a combination of both.
What do you think?