OMG, my son is sexist and he’s not even in school yet. Do I really need to start promoting gender equality already?
It’s my fault, and it took me totally by surprise. When I had a boy, I was determined that my husband and I would raise him to be boy – and eventually a man – who respects women and treats them as equals. I just didn’t realise I’d have to start so early.
Like most babies and toddlers, he’s fascinated by trucks, diggers, buses and aeroplanes. People gave him picture books filled with different types of trucks, and we would read them to him over and over again. “Look at the yellow truck, there’s the man driving the digger, oh there’s the bus driver – he’s beeping the horn…”
I was pleased he was so interested, so engaged! Then we were given some Duplos – a farm set and a digger set. They came with a tractor, a digger, a tip truck and three male Duplo figures to drive them. And so it continued, we’d play with the Duplos, talking about what we were doing, “Look there’s the man in the truck, and now he’s putting some dirt in the tractor…”
I didn’t see it, didn’t hear it, the constant repetition of ‘him’, ‘he’, ‘the man’ until all of a sudden one day I did. We were looking at a vehicle picture book and I realised they had included a female character, a farmer. So I said to my son, “That’s the woman, she drives the tractor,” and he didn’t even look at her, he just said, “No… man!”
The first thing we did to remedy the situation was march into the LEGO store and demand to see a female Duplo character. Actually there are a few, so we came home with a female zookeeper, complete with a bear and a fish to feed to the bear. Unfortunately, whenever I suggest that the woman should drive the tractor or the digger my son shakes his head, laughs, and says, ‘Man!’. She is occasionally allowed to drive the tip truck but is almost always rejected in favour of the man.
I’m annoyed with myself for being so easily led by the toys that my son owned. He’s not quite two and he is already quite confident that men do pretty much all the things. As I’m a stay at home parent here in Singapore, he also knows that mum cooks lunch and dinner, does the dishes (well, sometimes), the laundry and the shopping. So even though I worked up until having a child and we used to share those household duties more evenly, I still feel like my son is growing up completely subscribing to this patriarchal view of the world. And we’ve only got ourselves to blame.
I guess what I’ve realised is that, in all seriousness, promoting gender equality will take constant vigilance. The way toys are marketed for children has a long way to go (as do many of the toys themselves), but as a parent I can make informed decisions about what I choose to encourage my child to play with.
I’ve made a point of talking about the mums we know who do go to work, and also the women we know who are not mums. I’m graduating with my Masters next year, and I look forward to my son witnessing that. I hope he’s starting to understand that women can do all sorts of things – including driving diggers, tip trucks and tractors. But for now, my son’s awareness of gender roles, and what it means to be a man or a woman in this world will remain a work in progress.