Comparing Notes: Learning To Value Gender Stereotypes

February 6, 2013 in Comparing Genders

It’s a bonus week here at Oh Boy Mom because I am running a SECOND Comparing Notes post today, where a guest blogger shares her insight and observations while raising both genders. As a mom to all-boys, I welcome these posts because I always learn something new. This one is from Jane Marsh at Nothing By The Book who is a mom to 2 sons and 1 daughter. Jane discusses how she learned to embrace the gender stereotypes she saw develop in her first two children, a boy and a girl. I’m sure you’ll enjoy this post as much as I did when I first read it.


I have a category on my blog called Gender Bender, in which I document the various ways in which my children subconsciously—and their parents more overtly—subvert and sabotage gender stereotypes. But this subversion and the freedom we try to give our two sons and daughter to define themselves on their own terms, not boxed into pre-determined boxes of gender expectations, unfolds against a background of natural inclinations… an awful lot of which are, frankly, as gender-stereotypic as one can get.

In many ways, my motherhood journey involved having to learn to value and embrace gender stereotypes. Just when I managed to value the Caveman-Warrior that was my first-born son, the universe gifted me with the ultimate embodiment of the Feminine in my daughter, and challenged me even further. And then came the third…

But let’s start with the first experiment, my now 10.5 year old son Cinder, whose mother, when he was born, decreed that he would play with dolls and never with guns. Who got him a tea set and proudly presented him with her “specialest” childhood dolly. Who not-so-politely confiscated the birthday presents that went bang, were painted in army camo, or otherwise “encouraged” war play.

Cinder didn’t mind the tea parties so much—cookies were usually involved—but that doll toy I kept on foisting on him? He couldn’t figure out what the heck to do with it… until the day he loosened her head, wrenched it off… and used it as a ball.

I think I cried.

When he was two-and-a-half, he built himself a “shooter” out of Duplo. Also a spear and a club. The summer he was three, I half-heartedly gave in, and got him a water gun that didn’t look like a watergun… But before the end of that summer, he was running around the Common and the playground fully armed. I was giving in, watching him be what he needed to be. And he, this first son of mine, is Warrior Embodied, with all the challenges in the 21st century world you’d think that would entail. In virtually ever other generation—and in many cultures other than ours today still—you’d all be lining up trying to hook him up with your daughters. He’d be the kid going on the hunt earlier than the rest, because his aim with a rock was killer. The kid who’d be chopping wood and hauling water and working in the fields and making a huge physical contribution to the family well before his seventh birthday. One of the tribe’s leaders. The dude who’d save your collective butts if another tribe got too uppity; a powerhouse of physicality, energy, strength, and power.

Learning Cinder and what his dad and I called “cracking his code” was all about learning to value this aspect of him: this immense physical, breath-taking level of activity, and finding ways to let him express it in 21st century North America.

And then we got Flora, now eight years old. For the first few years of her life, Flora lived in the shadow and influence of her hyper-masculine, active brother. She played with trains, cars, dinosaurs—and guns and army tanks and soldiers. She jumped off couches and tables, climbed shelves, built forts. She wore an awful lot of Cinder’s hand-me downs… had a crazy, unkempt mop of hair… and wanted to be Spider-Man when she grew up.

I know precisely the day Flora discovered her feminine self. She was three and change, and we were at a friend’s house. A house full of little girls. While Cinder discovered the family Lego bin and set to work (building bombs), Flora went upstairs and discovered… the dress-up bin. Princess dresses. Fairy wings. Tiaras. The girls played dress-up and imaginary games for hours. And at the end, my Flora came to me and said, “Mom! I had so much fun! We played Princesses and Fairies and Unicorns… and you know what was weird? No dinosaurs or pirates ever came and attacked us. Not once!”

A few days later, I got Flora her own fairy wings. And the first of many, many unicorns. And found that once again, I had to learn to value and celebrate gender stereotypes, as Flora discovered and embraced her inner Unicorn-Goddess.

I was shocked to find out how many negative feelings and emotions I had about feminine gender stereotypes—even more than what confronted me when I went through the yang part of this experience with Cinder. But to truly love and value Flora, I had to love and value each of them. Because they were—part of her. And she was part of me.

Now, my boy-boy and girl-girl influence each other and take the edge off each other’s more extreme maleness and femaleness. Warrior Cinder has a nurturing side: he may have wrenched the head off that special doll of mine, but when his trucks needed refueling, he breastfed each and every one of them. And he’s a loving, protective big brother now. Princess Flora may love to wear beautiful dresses, articulate each and every one of her feelings, and dream of owning her own unicorn (downgraded, I think, to a pony now that she’s a bit older), but, in her own words, she “can kick wicked ass” when she needs to.

They also both influence their younger brother, Ender, three-and-a-half and, at this point, as perfect a mixture of feminine and masculine traits as you can get. As physical as Cinder, as articulate as Flora. As obsessed with things with wheels and balls as it is possible for any child to be—yet in love with everything soft and fuzzy. He’s the boy who notices what everyone’s wearing—and, since early toddlerhood, has had clear preferences about his clothes. (Cinder, at 10.5, still couldn’t care less—so long as it’s functional and doesn’t rub, he’ll wear it.) He’s also the boy who charms and loves and connects with everyone he meets. And sometimes pummels them out of sheer love and affection.

I can’t wait to see what gender-bender lesson he’ll teach me. Cinder taught us to love the Warrior and Caveman. Flora taught us to value the Princess-Fairy-Mermaid-Persephone-Aphrodite. Who will Ender be? What will he teach us to love and understand?

It will be fascinating.

Jane Marsh blogs about unLessons in Expert-free Parenting at Nothing By The Book.


{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Janine Huldie February 7, 2013 at 9:03 am

I only have the one side of this with two little princess fairies, but it is truly fascinating to me to hear the other side of the coin. My girls pretty much were allowed to navigate so much for themselves, but here we are at 3 1/2 and 2 years old respectively and we had to have a pink room and dress up like princesses daily. So the feminine side is so alive in my house that you well know how poor Kevin wants a male dog like yesterday, lol!! :)


nothingbythebook February 7, 2013 at 10:11 am

We have a female dog, Janine, by my daughter’s request, in her attempt to balance the male-female ratio!


whencrazymeetsexhaustion February 7, 2013 at 6:59 pm

I love that you’ve allowed your kids to come into their own and in their own time. We need more parents like you who don’t force their own insecurities on their children in an effort to make themselves feel better. Oh and breastfeeding a truck? Classic!!!!! I hope you have a picture of that!


Cyndi February 7, 2013 at 7:07 pm

Fun stuff! I’m taking notes for the day I have a kid or two, LOL.


Kristi February 7, 2013 at 8:42 pm

Awww to your son wrenching the doll’s head off and using it as a ball. Part of me laughed because, well, I only have one boy and he’d way rather have a ball with eyes and hair than a doll. Part of me cried with you, though.

It really is interesting that, as new parents, we promise ourselves to not buy only gender-specific toys and then our kids often gravitate toward them anyway. Nature vs. Nurture and all that.


nothingbythebook February 7, 2013 at 9:28 pm

The story of raising my first two is nature trumping nurture pretty much every time. And did I mention–my first degree is in social anthropology? Sigh.


Virginia Sullivan February 8, 2013 at 9:14 am

I have 4 kids- 2 boys and 2 girls. You are right, they are their own people. I know alot of people talk about the nature/nuture balance, and analyze this. You’ve done a great job in bringing humour to what parts of my children are inherant and what I taught them. I especially loved the one about the fairy wings and tiaras- absolutely true. I believe there is alot more of nature involved than we think. Maybe I was just someone who allowed them to be what they were- I guess that’s not too bad. Great post! loved it. V


Roshni February 11, 2013 at 10:00 pm

I love this! As a mom of two boys, I don’t really get to compare much either between the genders, so this is quite fascinating!


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