Why Can't We Let Children Be Themselves?
I haven't written an article on here in a few days and usually, when I do have the time to sit down and write, I am thoroughly looking forward to the process of writing. Generally, for me, writing is driven by joy.
Today, it isn't. Maybe it is just that I have spent too much time on Twitter recently and that usually gets me all worked up. Even though I don't allow myself to get sucked into Twitter battles (all too often there are not enough characters available for a well-argued response), the stories and experiences other parents post on there about how society treats children outrage me.
Across the world, we have come a long way in addressing the many reasons why women are not treated in exactly the same way men are. We might not have all the answers yet and we are far from resolving the root problems, but avenues do open up for men to be more involved in actively caring for their children on a day-to-day basis just as it is easier for women to return to work, if they so choose.
While my grandparents in the 1950s/60s were disappointed when they only had daughters (because to them at the time it meant the family business might pass to somebody else, and let's not forget the eventual loss of the family name), these days most people are quite reasonable when they find out the sex of their child - even if it turns out they got their second-preferred choice.
We've begun to raise daughters more like sons...but few have the courage to raise our sons more like daughters.— Gloria Steinem
A modern attitude?
When I first held my son, I was at peace with myself and the world despite the agony of an emergency C-section. To me, my son was a blank slate and I remember being so excited about getting to know him and, in time, discovering who he will become.
I guess this is a feeling that many of you know, or maybe it is an experience that you hope to have, too. There is, literally, nothing more mind-blowing than to see a child's personality unfold. The first word, the first step - they are all exciting moments and don't underestimate the emotional response they evoke in us grown ups.
Of equal importance are a child's first choices. A baby might suddenly go from just sitting amidst a mountain of toys for ages before picking a favourite one. There comes the point when they pick a favourite dish or discover a favourite colour - all of these are important milestones in unfolding their personalities.
Bear in mind that they make their choices based on their personal preferences, free from expectations or guidance. What they prefer at that early stage, ultimately, has no influence on society as a whole and yet, if their choice strikes somebody as unusual, they might attempt to un-make that choice for the child.
Look around Twitter and there are the "mundane" situations:
- face painting seems to be a mine field where children are often told, either by the face painter or the grown up by their side, that the design they have chosen is somehow "wrong";
- books and toys are on the market as for "girls" or for "boys" and eyebrows get raised when the little customer doesn't want to abide by these classifications;
- TV shows for the youngest viewers do their best in reinforcing stereotypes of how boys and girls behave and follow this up with an incredible amount of merchandise (which in turn is marketed to boys and girls separately);
- clothes...don't get me started on clothes because the issues here range from girl clothes to looking a lot like grown up fashion from a young age, the arbitrarily assigned motifs that you can only put on girl or boy clothes (like bunnies being intended for baby girls and foxes for baby boys...) and let's not get started on that shade of red which has been deemed inappropriate for boys...
But even if you as a parent actively avoid these (and the many other) every-day problems, there are always the other people you encounter who might not mean harm but at the end of the day say things in front of children that your own child might accept as a fact if you don't talk about it with them.
Like the other mum observing your son on his trike who will say in front of her own daughter "He's doing remarkably well on this but boys are just better at this than girls, aren't they?". Or the grandparent who will ask why a boy should be forced into learning knitting at school. Then there might be the opinionated shop assistant who knows what your child wants to buy with their pocket money better than they do, apparently.
Sometimes it would be a waste of energy starting a fight over this, I know this and I am not set for confrontation at all times. After all, especially older generations don't necessarily mean to be hurtful or cause harm. Generally people are happiest when they don't stick out of the crowd too much and we are all more comfortable when we fit into a group. Many of us carry at least one memory where we didn't fit in and how hurt we got ourselves and this is the last thing we want for one of our young proteges.
But the thing is, we cannot protect them from these experiences anyway and even if it was possible, we would deprive them of a chance to discover themselves and their values. All we as parents can do is to support our children emotionally when they come up against other people who don't agree with their choices.
Don't ever feel bad for making a decision about your own life that upsets other people. You are not responsible for their happiness. You are responsible for your own happiness. Anyone who wants you to live in misery for their happiness should not be in your life to begin with.— Isaiah Hankel
Everybody deserved to be in charge of their own life
Whilst these little problems don't get enough attention, there's also the big Twitter stories that go viral because they are so ridiculous and so unfair to children that they spark a wider public reaction.
Remember the little boy who wasn't allowed to book the "Princess for a Day" experience at Disneyland where he would have met his Disney-heroine Elsa? But his parents were told Disneyland would happily put together a merchandise package that he could enjoy in the hotel room?
Have you recently come across @DaddyFiles' account of what happened to his son when he went to kindergarten with painted nails? What upset me most about his story was that for the whole day this five-year-old was shunned by his peers (including his friends) who should, really, be just as happy to explore what they like without set ideas of what is "appropriate".
But the thing is, at that age, childrens' minds can be closed already. And it's hardly surprising: if you've heard your whole life that these are they toys you should play with and these are the clothes you should wear and these colours are ok for you to like, then one day you will start to take that as gospel. And little children who accept the gospel grow up to be people who reign themselves in and limit their own abilities because others have defined who they are by making decisions for them.
In that sense, if you see a boy pushing a pink pram around or a girl wearing a ninja outfit this Halloween, take it as an opportunity to tell your child that making choices means being in charge of one's own life. People might not always agree with every choice (parents included), but it's better to come up against resistance and be happy in oneself than trying to live the life somebody else has mapped out.
© 2018 Sarah