I am with my three-year-old twin daughters at a princess and pirate-themed child’s birthday party where there is an Anna from Frozen character dishing out temporary tattoos. She is, however, nonplussed by their preferences. “Are you sure you don’t want a princess one? Look at this sparkly tiara! Or there’s this fairytale castle!”
“No, this one please.”
“Are you really sure?” Lookalike Elsa’s wide eyes look to me for confirmation.
“She’s sure,” I say, pointing to the skull and crossbone tattoo. “She loves pirates.”
“Oh-kay,” says Elsa. “If you’re really sure. Look! Here’s a glittery wand!”
“No thanks,” my daughter says. “I really like this one.”
By now I’m giggling. I’ve just spotted my daughter’s twin sister behind her in the queue, and she’s holding a transfer with a pirate’s galleon on.
“Another unusual choice! There’ll be none left for the boys!”
Daughter number two looks absolutely crestfallen. Her hand falters. “Of course you can have a pirate one too!” I overcompensate for Elsa’s overly pencilled arched eyebrows.
“My girls are really into all things pirate. They love Peter Pan and Swashbuckle’s their favourite CBeebies programme …” My girls break into a rendition of the Swashbuckle pirate salute, and nearby parents smile. They don’t think my daughters are odd. Do they?
“Proper pair of tomboys you’ve got there.” Elsa’s parting shot.
“I’m not a boy!”
“I’m a girl, not Tom boy. She’s a silly lady!”
“Yes, she is a bit silly, isn’t she?”
I’d love to say this was a one-off, but this casual gender stereotyping has been happening for a while. At their two-year health check, one of the tests was to identify words on picture cards. I spotted the friendly childcare assistant quietly putting aside certain cards, while cherry-picking others with an excited, “Ooh, you’ll get this one!”
What was on the discarded pile? You guessed it, pictures that could be considered to be for boys: trucks, tractors, worms and dragons. As soon as I spotted what was happening, I asked the lady just to turn the cards as they came up, explaining that my twins loved playing with a range of toys. I know she’d meant well, but it just sat too awkwardly with me not to say anything. Why should they only get to look at princesses and ponies? Why should their world be shrunk in such a way?
Last Halloween, the girls went into preschool dressed as vampires. “Are they boys’ costumes?” asked a fellow mum.
“No, they’re just costumes for children that like vampires. My girls are obsessed with The Count from Sesame Street.” There I go again. Justifying why my girls have chosen a certain option.
The mum looks unconvinced. Around us, the other girls all seem to be dressed as sparkly princess witches, while the boys make up an assortment of vampires, ghouls and mummies. “Aren’t you a bit worried about them dressing like that?”
I make my excuses and dash away, not liking where the conversation is headed. Is she worried that by wearing a costume my daughters might morph into boys? Or worse, lesbians?
Following on from a report by the Institute of Physics, guidelines have been sent into schools across the UK today, urging teachers to reprimand children who use language that could be considered to reinforce gender stereotypes. Sexist phrases that are to be addressed include “man up”, “don’t be a sissy”, “that’s wet”, “don’t be a girl”, the use of “cupcake” when addressing boys or girls, and challenging situations where girls are called “lesbian” for choosing activities that might be considered for boys.
Is there a need for such prescriptive guidance? Having been at a farm just yesterday where a boy in the queue for a tractor ride expressed his displeasure about having to wait with, “That’s so gay!” I think there is. The boy in question must have been about six and his comment went unchallenged by his parent. Language is a powerful tool, and children are heavily influenced by their peers and the adults around them.
People may roll their eyes about the fact that the report advocates schools having specific “gender champions”, but in a world where boys are twice as likely to take A-level maths, while girls are twice as likely to take A-level English, they are surely a good thing. We need more girls to take up subjects such as physics and maths, those traditionally considered male subjects, if we are to work towards closing the gendered pay gap (women currently earn two-thirds of what men do).
Reprimanding sexist language in schools is a start in the quest for gender equality, but to go further, we need to address the deep-seated attitudes held by some people, those that enforce rigid gender barriers. And again it comes back to how we deal with our children at a young age, even when they’re playing.
A friend recently asked me whether she should be concerned that when she picks up her three-year-old boy from nursery he’s often dressed as a fairy. Another friend’s son is usually to be found pushing a vacuum cleaner or making everyone cups of pretend tea. She gets constant comments about him being “soft”.
“It’s worse for boys,” both friends have said when we’ve nattered about our non-fixed-gender-play conformist children. They feel that girls can get away with being tomboyish, but with boys the assumption is that there’s something seriously wrong with them if they embrace what are considered to be feminine traits and behaviours. “I bet you’ve not seen a boy attend at a themed party in a dress …”
Until this month, they would have been right. That was before Paul Henson, a dad from Virginia, posted a picture on Facebook of his son dressed in his Halloween costume of choice – Elsa from Frozen. Paul explained that his son had chosen this costume for a Halloween party, and that he’d also asked him to go along as Anna, something he was game to do. “Halloween is about children pretending to be their favourite characters. Just so happens, this week his is a princess.” The post went viral, featuring on BuzzFeed, and had over 28,000 Facebook shares in a week.
This is encouraging. The reams of positive messages under Paul’s post show that he’s tapped into a sentiment that lots of people believe in, and more importantly, can completely relate to with their own children. For Paul, it was about addressing the “masculine bullshit” that the sight of a boy in a dress could trigger.
As adults we can be multi-faceted and enjoy a range of experiences, so why not our children? I like reading and ballet, but I also love map reading, trekking in the wilderness and a pint in the pub. My husband has no interest in cars or the latest football scores, but it doesn’t mean he’s not a fun guy.
Surely half the fun of childhood is that all the toys and imaginative play experiences out there are open to them. I’m not anti-girly things (the last time my twins dressed up as pirates, they were also wearing pink tutus), but I hate the idea that to be a girl, there are certain rules and behaviours that absolutely must be followed. Let’s be honest, sometimes the things designed for girls aren’t the most fun. I’m not surprised that my children sometimes want to be the swashbuckling adventurers, rather than the princesses waiting to be rescued. They build whole realms with wooden blocks, train sets, and a motley crew of plastic figures, while their glittery handbags lie unnoticed in the corner.
There’s nothing wrong with boys wanting to be fairies either. They are magical, get up to lots of mischief and can fly. What’s not to love?
Some boys will enjoy pushing vacuum cleaners around and making cups of tea. Copying jobs that grownups do makes children feel just that, grown-up. And it’s good training for them. I’m sure the mums who roll their eyes at my friend’s “soft” little boy don’t do the same when their husbands bring them a cup of tea in bed or get the vacuum cleaner out. And any child who plays with a doll in a kind and nurturing way is a good thing – and excellent preparation for any younger siblings who may come along.
So this weekend, the girls will be heading to a princess and pirate party at a local play centre dressed as pirates. I may get the odd look, but it’s what they’ve chosen. My girls will be the ones who can get all the way to the top of the wavy slide, unlike the poor Belles and Cinderellas who’ll be tripping over their long dresses at the bottom.
Children can be princess and pirate. If they’re happy and having creative fun, they’re going to be learning a wide range of skills. It doesn’t matter at all if they don’t fit neatly into a pink or blue box. Most of us are much more multi-coloured.