Dear Dave

Friday 21 August 2009

Slugs and snails

Dear Dave,

Thanks for asking how Marie's first day at school went. She seemed to enjoy herself. She certainly emerged from the playground gate with a drawing and a big grin. Then she smugly pointed out all the children who'd cried.

Ho well. I suspect her turn for tears will come in a couple of weeks when she gets tired and realises she has another thirteen years to go...

Still, things have gone very smoothly so far. She's even found a good answer to satisfy the various people who've asked her what she learnt. Her instant reply is, "Where the toilets are." It's not exactly rocket science or brain surgery but it's a solid start that can be built on. Truth be told, I always count my own initial session in any new situation as a success if I manage to locate the facilities. She'll go far.

The highlight of her first day experience was the moment she noticed that her choice of uniform options meant her socks and hair scrunchy coordinated with her dress. She was delighted to find herself a green Gingham fashion icon. The only thing which came close to this was getting to show off all her pink jewellery when a friend came round after school.

As you know from my recent rant, I'm not a fan of gender stereotyping. I'm clearly not in a traditional role myself and I'd be quite happy if Marie became a physicist or a plumber. I really have tried to bring her up the same as I did the boys, it just hasn't turned out quite the way I expected.

I suspect much of this is down to her nature but it came to my attention recently that treating girls and boys the same is harder than it sounds. You see, I had to buy birthday presents for a mixed pair of four-year-old twins, Katie and Peter. (Don't ask.) I don't know them that well and I wasn't sure what kind of stuff they had already, so I wandered round a toy shop searching for inspiration. Since they're the same age, have had the same upbringing and share the same home, the task became a perfect experiment to test my own attitudes. With little knowledge of their individual preferences and nothing to distinguish their circumstances, I could only be swayed by their genders into getting them different types of toys. I was confident, however, I could easily overcome any deep-rooted prejudice I might have and find a couple of play-things that would be acceptable to any child, no matter whether the kid was composed of sugar and spice or molluscs and canine extremities.

I was wrong.

I immediately found myself considering anything pink, sparkly, fluffy or creative for Katie and anything involving vehicles, flashing lights or sport for Peter. In fact, the obvious choices were a design-your-own fairy kit and an electronic rally car.

This was not a great start.

It's not as if my own boys like cars or sports (although they can be very easily distracted in an emergency by dangling a torch on a bit of string and giving it a good spin). Marie has played with our toy garage far more than both of them put together. Nonetheless, I felt drawn to buy speedy mechanical things for Peter in a way I simply didn't for Katie. They would have been good enough to get for her if I couldn't locate anything else but they weren't really right. In contrast, there were plenty of art materials and doll sets I thought Katie would love but I couldn't imagine buying for Peter. When it came down to it, I didn't mind getting them both 'boy' toys but couldn't bring myself to get them both 'girl' stuff. (To a certain extent, anyway - two Ninja Robot Aqua CommandosTM would have been as inappropriate as two Rainbow Princess PoniesTM.)

I stared at the shelves for several minutes, unable to find gifts that adequately satisfied both my gut instincts and my finely-honed liberal values, then I struggled on round the shopping centre, consumed by indecision. I didn't want to go with traditionally gender-oriented toys and I wasn't brave enough to make role-reversal purchases. My closest approximation to a solution was to pretend the twins were both rather restrained boys. This made me uncomfortable, though, because as I said in my last letter, equality that's achieved by making everyone act male isn't very pleasant. I was stuck.

To complicate matters further, I had Marie with me, holding the power of veto over my choices. Every so often I forlornly picked up a box, turned it over in my hands and showed it to her. "What do think of this for Peter?"

She rolled her eyes. "That's a girl toy, silly. It's got a picture of a girl on the box."

"He might like it anyway."

"I'd like it more. Can I have?"

I sighed and put the box back on the shelf. "Maybe when it's your birthday..."

This scenario repeated itself a number of times, interspersed with occasions when Marie picked up a fuchsia item covered with glitter and mermaids, and said, "I think Katie wants this."

"I'm sure she does but we're not getting it for her."

Marie nodded. "Can I have it then?"

I sighed and took it from her and put it back on the shelf. "Maybe when it's your birthday..."

After the third shop, I lost the will to live.

I gave up and got a Bob the Builder board game between them. Of course, buying one present between two children because they're twins is a whole other issue, so I felt compelled to buy a small toy car as well, just so they'd have a parcel each. Unfortunately, this back-fired later when it came to handing the gifts over. I went into spasm over who should unwrap which one, holding them out to the kids and then crossing my arms over a few times in rapid succession as my brain did some last second calculation. I ended up literally tying myself in a knot and then falling over.

The twins astutely ignored the gifts and frisked my dazed body for sweets, loose change and credit cards...

There are a couple of important lessons here:
  1. Gender preconceptions are clearly insidious.
  2. All kids, irrespective of gender, are cheeky little chancers.
There's not much to be done about the latter problem (apart from keeping your PIN numbers safe) but, in an effort to break some social conventions, I may have to go paint my boys' nails and then encourage them to become primary teachers.

Oh, no, wait a minute, I've already agreed to play a board game involving space marines with them this afternoon, while Marie makes a bead mosaic and watches a show about yoga-loving animals with pet butterflies. I'm booked up.

Maybe tomorrow, eh?

Yours in a woman's world,


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