They’re getting the message . . . but who’s sending it?

Several years ago, a professor of mine in grad school told me about his daughter, then three. She said one day that when she grew up, she wanted to be a nurse. “Or a doctor,” he added, to which she replied, “Daddy! Girls can’t be doctors!”

He was still shocked when he related the story to me — “I just don’t understand it,” he said. “I  mean, she has a female pediatrician! Where did she get that from?”

I think that we parents who try to raise our kids in feminist, anti-racist, non-violent, and/or socially just ways often think of ourselves as in battle with the larger culture. We’re trying to offer different–sometimes radically different–messages about people, culture, what matters, what constitutes worth, than we see in the media.

It’s easy to look at an example like my professor’s daughter and think that beliefs of the larger culture snuck around our safeguards somehow. But I would argue that we also need to examine our own messages more closely. It’s naive to think we parents aren’t affected by the larger culture we inhabit and I think we are often passing bizarrely mixed messages on to our kids about their genders, their sexualities, their racial identities, their relations to material stuff.

When a dad makes a point of being more affectionate with his son than his father was with him; when parents are free with hugs to boys and encourage them to own and express their feelings; when families make a point of not shaming boys for crying, being sensitive, or feeling shy — well, obviously, these are all good things! But what happens when the same parents squirm if their sons want to wear clothing that expresses softness and sensitivity? When boys can only wear images of physically tough, fighter models for behavior such as superheroes, wild animals, and law enforcement officers?

Likewise, what happens when we tell our daughters they can be anything they want but capitulate to the current princess culture marketed to girls? When we purchase clothing, bring it into our homes, and help our preschoolers into it, we have to take some ownership for the messages it contains.

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