I've been feeling like a bit of a failure as a feminist parent lately. Over the past few weeks Donovan has been expressing some fairly sexist gender stereotypes. I know this is an age at which many kids become more aware of gender norms, and it feels like he's kind of "trying them on for size" and experimenting with these ideas, but even if I don't think he fully believes them yet it's still difficult to see him be so aware of them and scary to think of how strongly these messages are felt at such an early age.
A week or two ago he came home from school and told me about how he was playing this game with two other girls at school, where the girls were princesses and another kid was an evil king trying to attack them, so D became their "protector" and would fight off the king to keep the princesses safe. When I asked him about how maybe the princesses could also help fight off the king and protect themselves, he insisted that they couldn't, they needed him to save them, and they couldn't have the same sorts of superpowers he (as the protector) had. I don't know who decided on those "rules," if it was him or the girls or someone else, or if that was even how they played the game. In a way it's sweet that he wanted to help his friends, but this game also sounds like a perfect example of benevolent sexism.
He's also been saying things like that he doesn't like "pretty things" because he's a boy, and that when he grows up and has babies I will have to take care of them for him because he'll be too busy and taking care of babies is too boring or something. It's interesting to hear him say these things, since they don't actually reflect his behavior-- he has a favorite pair of pink pants, the snow boots he picked out himself (and loved wearing all winter) have pink and purple flowers all over them, and just yesterday we needed a bookmark for his robot book and he picked one that is sparkly, glittery, and pastel-colored (and very pretty). As for babies, he loves hanging out with the babies we know and often tells me how good he is at taking care of them and wants to help babysit them. So it does feel like more than anything, he's hearing these things and experimenting with what they mean and how they feel to him but hasn't internalized them (...yet).
The one that really shook me was this morning, when he was telling me about his Lego monster trucks and he said that no women can drive his trucks because the trucks are too rough, only men can drive them. He really argued back with me on it, too, which is what got to me-- he sounded pretty adamant about this. A few minutes after our conversation (while I feeling like total crap for failing to shield my 5yo from such sexist notions) I suddenly remembered about Madusa, a female monster truck driver, so I called him over to the computer and showed him pictures and a video of her. We also looked up a list on wikipedia of women nascar drivers, and later on watched this video on women truckers (thanks, Melanie!). He conceded that yes, there are some tough women drivers and they would be allowed to drive his lego trucks.
This whole thing really highlighted for me the importance of having deliberate and specific conversations about gender norms and stereotypes (and about race, and class issues, and sexual preference, and gender identity, and fatphobia, etc etc etc). And they need to start early, and be ongoing. He sees these prejudiced messages from friends at school, from TV shows (as even the "good ones" have problematic images and assumptions), from posters and magazine covers in the grocery stores, messages that most of us as adults are so used to that we don't even notice them but they're there and influencing our kids. I'm guessing D got this idea about only men being "tough enough" to drive his trucks from the fact that the shows he watches featuring big trucks and fancy cars all have only men in them. It's my job to help him become aware of those biases, to question them and realize how unfair they are, before they take root in his mind. It feels like an uphill battle, my influence feeling small and insignificant against all these other sources. Honestly, I felt pretty defeated this morning. But I also feel like I broadened his view a bit, which felt like a small triumph. I'm trying to keep my eye on the forrest and not get bogged down by a few trees, and hope that my efforts will make a difference in the long run.