Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Slugs and Snails and Duck Down: Remembering what Individuals are Made Of

I try to be a mom who sees her kids as individuals first,  I encourage my sons (and husband) to be demonstrative and open about their emotions.  I am ridiculously protective of gendered stereotypes such as telling a boy he's "brave" or "tough" only when he doesn't cry (I tell them they are brave and tough anytime they face their fears and if they need to cry, cry! It's what humans do!). I was pretty vocal in combatting the "he's all boy" type comments we got when he broke his arm for the second time before Christmas.  I try to give my boys opportunities not just to destroy, but also to build, not just to drive cars, but also to nurture.  They play swords occasionally, but those foam pirate swords can only be used to touch other swords or weapons. They actually play with their play kitchen a bit more often.  I am not trying to raise them in a gender-less environment, but I am trying to help them define their gender as part of the identity they create for themselves and, mostly, to learn about and be themselves first and foremost.  So, imagine my surprise when I realized this morning that I have been in the midst of the silliest kind of gender stereotyping for weeks and had not realized it!

  It began innocently enough.  As spring begins to emerge rather sleepily and sluggishly throughout the Midwest, I decided to try to interest my eldest son in more animal and natural world activities.  His father has been taking him in the yard to help with beginning yardwork and set up the bird feeder his uncle got him for Christmas in front of our living room window so he could watch the birds as they reentered our yard. We've been enthusiastically playing outside, going for walks, and marking the changes in the yard as the new season awakens.  Meanwhile, I decided to try showing him a larger natural world by getting fun videos from the library.  While a decent idea, my selections were ridiculous.  Remembering what my brothers loved when they were young, I checked out dinosaur videos, shark videos, and old crocodile hunter videos.  Week after week, my son was completely uninterested in watching them.  I never "made" him, but I was perplexed as to why he wasn't interested.  This is a child who loves watching Anerica's Castles with me and documentaries on bridge engineering, so surely the content wasn't too boring for him! What was wrong?  Didn't he like nature?

This morning I found out.  Confident he would like Steve Irwin if he only gave him a try (everyone loved Steve Irwin, right? Even my mother who hates snakes, lizards, and anything that crawls with the burning passion of a thousand suns loved Steve Irwin!), I put in an episode of Croc Files.  It was one on marsupials.  My son initially was resistant, but eventually relaxed as the episide continued.  

"Mama, I like this kangaroo and koala part, but please turn it off before we get to the part with crocodiles.  They scare me."   
"They scare you?"
"Yeah, the teeth are scary like sharks and dinosaurs.  I don't like them.  I don't like those kinds of animals with big, scary teeth . . . Like tigers or other scary things."

Suddenly, a light bulb went off in my head.  Instead of picking out nature videos that would appeal to my son (the individual who adores birds, especially ducks, and desperately wants to go fishing), I had been wasting my time picking out videos that would appeal to my preconceived idea of what "boys" like (sharks and crocodiles)!  While he probably will want to learn about other creatures someday, a much better choice for first nature documentaries probably would have been dolphins, fish, and ducks!  He is a cautious child and has never shown any interest in predators.  What was I thinking?  I had been so concerned about picking up stuff that "boys" would like, I had forgotten what my son would like.  

We turned off Croc Files since that was the only episide without crocs, and turned on a netflix "Duck-umentary" and my son was enraptured.  At the library, we checked out videos on fish, birds, planets, and constructing domes (my little engineer is particularly keen on that one).  This time, he's excited for the science movies and I'm excited to give him views of the natural world beyond our backyard that won't scare him.

Gender stereotyping can sneak up on you when you least expect it.  As embarrassing as it might be to admit you've made a mistake, apologize and move on quickly.  I hope my son knows that I am seeing him for him again and not just as what I imagined a "boy" to be.  I also hope that my own accidental stereotyping doesn't sneak up on me again for awhile!

Thanks for reading, 


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