Feel my pain: I’ve been dealing with an uncompromising misogynist all week. Imagine a shoutier, but thankfully cuter version of Donald Trump, blasting opinions pinned to his binary perceptions of the world. He targets these at me, willy-nilly, without nuance or thought. To be fair though, he’s not as terrified of women as Trump seems to be. And, to be fairer, he is two-and-a-half.
Despite my best efforts to date, I appear to have a sexism-spouting son. Or to be slightly more forgiving (I am his mum, after all), I have a son who has started seeing the world in his own specific way. “Pink is for girls, Mammy,” he began the other day, initially dismissing his dinner because it arrived in a bowl of that provocative colour. (The crimson plastic eventually stayed put, mainly because it contained his favourite pasta.) A day later, on a drive home from nursery, he tendered another troll-worthy zinger: “Ladies can’t drive lorries – they can’t!” On this point he wouldn’t be budged, despite my protests behind the steering wheel. (Note to self: must find a clip of lorry-driving Long-Distance Clara from early 80s BBC kids’ series Pigeon Street on YouTube to indulge my nostalgic feminist yearnings/teach my son that women can get HGV licences too.)
It turns out it’s not just my terrible hashtag-parenting either. Speaking to friends of a similarly un-Trumpy, pro-women-having-a-life political persuasion, I found it fascinating that most of the small boys they know parrot similar stereotypes, even when the very natures of their families go against them. There’s the mum whose son said that only daddies drive, when Dad’s never passed a test and Mum drives (all of) them everywhere. There’s the aunt whose nephew insisted that his mum did all the cooking at home, where Dad’s the main hob-lighter. Then there was the snowboarding, ice-skating friend who takes her sons along to her practices – they watched football with their dad one afternoon, then told her that girls don’t do sport. “I always thought that only parents with daughters needed to be scared of sexism,” she wrote to me on Facebook. “But now I realise it's me, having three boys, who needs to kick that shit out of their head.”
Kids make unsophisticated conclusions: ‘I usually see men driving lorries = only men can drive lorries’
That shit in their head comes from the world that surrounds them, of course. Some of it comes from kids making unsophisticated conclusions from their naïve observations of everyday life (I usually see men driving lorries = only men can drive lorries). Some of it comes from the ideas they receive every day from the books that they read, the situations they’re in, and the people they encounter. But what do you do? Ban all pop culture? Impose strict guidelines on how they live their lives? Stop them going to playgroups or meeting new friends in case they engage with different ideas? I’m not doing that. I’d rather be in our world, and talk about what we see together, and change how we see it, however tricky that is.
Thankfully, child psychologist Dr Rachel Andrew has some soothing words for me, and the rest of us banging our silly, girlish heads against walls. “Quite often when young children hear a new idea and repeat it, they’re just trying it out, and working out how it’s a meaningful thing in their world. When they’re very young especially, they’re very much living in the moment, reacting impulsively to things they’ve only just seen and felt.” In other words, our boys aren’t stating their future imperatives to be down on their mummies yet. That’s a relief.
Introducing diversity subtly into children’s lives is “the strongest way” to bring about changes in these early ideas, Dr Andrew adds. “If you introduce a child to more diversity in other families, or build positive role models into their play, that has much more impact – if they pick up a female toy, for example, say they do a job that would fall outside usual stereotypes”. (With this in mind, it’s telling that a family of two mums and two kids that are among my good friends haven’t dealt with the issues I’ve dealt with yet. Their son merely sees dads as exotic creatures, my friend said, “a bit like mums with beards”.)
In other words, we shouldn’t be tempted to preach or condemn when our little boys say things that are “wrong”, even though the world is rapidly feeling like a place where we women have to rail, rage and rave. It may too late to change the bigger toddlers currently running the planet, but when it comes to our sons, let’s normalise what women do, who we are, and who we can be, so our future can be bright, in all colours.