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How to raise a girl (or boy) - Elizabeth Unexplained
Lots of data but no answers
greyautumnrain
greyautumnrain
How to raise a girl (or boy)
Yesterday on the way home from our favorite Chinese restaurant Warren asked me how I thought we should raise the baby. It was such a stunningly broad question that I was a bit at a loss as to how to answer. “Just do what comes naturally,” was my initial response. Warren pointed out that he doesn’t operate that way; he thinks absolutely everything through. So we got to discussing it, a discussion I expect will last for at least the next eighteen years.

Warren specifically was pondering how to raise a daughter. While the gender of the fetus is very much up in the air, we did have the one ultrasound where it looked like it might be a girl. Warren said he thought that the right answer might be ‘just like you would a son’, and he thought that’s what my parents did. I am in complete agreement on both those points.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how my parents raised me, especially lately. I may be biased, but I think they were really good parents, and I might be a bit hard-pressed to do as well myself. I won’t say that they were perfect, on one ever is, but looking back it’s clear that the overriding factor in every decision they made was what was in the best interest of their children. Neither of my parents had anything that could remotely be considered an ideal upbringing. Both my parents lost their fathers before birth. Mom’s mother was a working single parent stuck raising two small children and a stepdaughter on a very limited income, and from what I’ve gathered was not a very happy person. Dad was raised by his aunt until he was nine, at which point his mother remarried and he moved in with her and his new stepfather. My parents don’t talk a whole lot about their childhoods, which leads me to believe that they were not filled with fond memories. I think it was very important to my parents that they do better for their own children.

I think that prior to my birth both my parents were hoping for a boy. Mom wanted to name a child after the father she never knew. I think Dad may have just thought a boy would be easier for him to parent. Obviously I wasn’t a boy, but the huge triumph of my parent’s parenting skill was that it truly did not matter one bit. It was especially striking with Dad. Looking back at my baby album there are numerous pictures of Dad with me; it so clear that he was absolutely crazy about me. Mom did all the mother things, or course, and she worked as well, back when there were hardly any working mothers. Dad handled all the dad stuff, as far as I can tell exactly the same way as if I had been a boy. He built towers as tall as himself out of wooden blocks for me to knock down. He took me up to the roof of our apartment building in Queens to ride my tricycle around. We played for hours with the model trains he’d gotten when he was thinking he might have a son. As a small child I just took it for granted all this cool stuff that Dad did with me, just like I took for granted the fact that Mom worked and read to me, and did all the other stuff that she did.

Later on I started to realize that Dad especially was unusual in his willingness to roll with the punches and not treat a little girl differently than he would a little boy. I guess I expect a mother to do that in this day and age (though perhaps I should not). Dad certainly did father/daughter things with us. He built us both doll houses and went to watch us dance. That was all great, but he did something else that made it all pale by comparison. A lot of men buy sports cars or something like that after they turn 40. For Dad it was guns. He recaptured the days of his youth in the army by getting a few rifles and taking them out to a range for target shooting. He also got a little air-powered pistol that we could fire in the garage or the back garden if we took a number of precautions. (Dad is huge on gun safety, so don’t even think of suggesting that this was risky.) After a few sessions in the garage where I surprised myself by doing OK in spite of my eyesight I expressed an interest in going to the range with him. If Dad even thought about blinking he hid it well. He already had a .22 that he’d purchased in the vain hope of interesting Mom in his hobby. He bought a second one so that both Margaret and I would have something to fire, and off we went. I loved it. My eyesight may be terrible, but I could offset that with patience and technique. Like I said, Dad was huge on gun safety, so I was constantly aware that I was holding a deadly weapon that had to be treated with every respect. It was scary, but it was also exciting and cool, and I was pretty good at it, all things considered. At thirteen I was also capable of noticing a key fact: Dad was the only man who ever brought his daughter to the range. There were a number of men his age who brought their sons, and there were some younger guys who had brought their girlfriends (most of whom weren’t so good at hiding the fact that shooting guns in a disused quarry was not their idea of a romantic date), but I never ever saw any other man who had his daughter with him. You never think of your own father as being exceptional until something like this dawns on you.

Obviously I like the way my parents raised me. I don’t believe that abilities are gendered. This is why I laugh at people who suggest that women aren’t as good at science or whatever. Women are just fine at science or whatever as long as their parents aren’t idiots who send the message that they shouldn’t be. Likewise boys are plenty capable of doing anything that girls are considered to be better at if their parents don’t discourage them. You should raise a little girl just like you would raise a little boy, and a little boy just like you would raise a little girl. To do that you just do whatever you and the child both find fun and interesting and educational without imposing stupid notions of gendered activities. You may not be able to prevent people outside the family from casting things as “boy” activities and “girl” activities, but I wasn’t going to accept some outsider’s bias over the example my parents were setting, and I don’t think my child will either.
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Comments
From: ext_89076 Date: April 21st, 2008 11:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
Nicely Done!
enugent From: enugent Date: April 22nd, 2008 12:24 am (UTC) (Link)
While I basically agree with your overriding message, I think there are some subtleties that you're gliding past. While I think that you should try to raise a girl just like a boy (or a boy just like a girl), that raising includes being aware of and rolling with their own preferences, personality, and developmental stages.

I know you have a copy of What's Going On In There (and if you hadn't mentioned it in a post, I would have sent it to you by now). I'm pretty sure that it talks about gender-based differences in development. Little boys seem more inclined towards gross motor activities, and tend to develop language skills a little later. I think that this can lead to some very typical "gendered" behavior in little ones - the girls spend more time in elaborate pretend games, and the boys spend more time seeing who can jump farthest off the back of the couch. The trick is to see what kind of kid you have, and to give them the kind of activities that they need and that will stimulate them most, without regard to the "gender typicality" of those activities in either direction. If your little girl isn't coordinated enough for a tricycle yet and is getting frustrated, don't push her just because you want her to be a tomboy, any more than you would tell her that she can't play with dump trucks because she's a girl.

I'm with you that abilities are not really gendered in adults, and that you can't assume that your daughter will hate math and your son won't want to learn to knit. But children develop in different areas at different paces, and there are some real, measurable differences, especially at very young ages.

You also cannot discount the effects of peer pressure. Even if you don't push gender roles at all at home, your kids will know all about them at a younger age than you think. (I think Dorothy was not yet three when she refused to wear a coat that Daddy had picked out because it was a "boy coat".) As they go through the stage of classifying everything in the world, they will probably need to be aware of gender stereotypes, and may well speak up quite forcefully when they don't think you're following them. It will pass.
psychohist From: psychohist Date: April 22nd, 2008 10:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
I have to admit that when Elizabeth asked what I was thinking, which started the conversation, I was specifically thinking about height, though that didn't end up coming up in the conversation directly.

You might not think of height as something that we could control, but there's very strong evidence that height is related to childhood diet, specifically that it's correlated with the intake of animal protein. Diet is one of those things that we have a lot of control over. We may not be able to force kids to eat vegetables, but bacon and hamburgers are less likely to be turned down.

So how tall would we want a daughter to be? Too tall and she might have trouble finding boyfriends - assuming an IVF baby doesn't want to take advantage of ovum merging technology that will probably allow her to skip Y chromosomes and sperm entirely by the time she decides to have children.

On the other hand, I've noticed that taller women are more likely to be treated with respect by men, and are less likely to feel like they need to treat men deferentially. This is a more important issue if, like me, one believes that the pendulum will be swinging back towards social acceptance of sex discrimination over the next few decades. Many signs are already there.

Obviously we won't ignore the child's preferences in general. We both hated having food forced on us as children, so we're hoping to avoid that with our kids. That still gives us a lot of opportunity to shape those preferences, though.
enugent From: enugent Date: April 22nd, 2008 11:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
Obviously we won't ignore the child's preferences in general. We both hated having food forced on us as children, so we're hoping to avoid that with our kids. That still gives us a lot of opportunity to shape those preferences, though.

Good luck with that. Shaping preferences may turn out to be a lot harder than you think. That was really my main point in reaction to Elizabeth's original post, anyway.
psychohist From: psychohist Date: April 23rd, 2008 04:02 am (UTC) (Link)
Harder, perhaps. Dorothy's cuteness certainly sounds pretty hard to resist!

That said, I think László Polgár demonstrated that a high degree of shaping is possible - more than I think I'd want to do, in fact.
dcltdw From: dcltdw Date: April 22nd, 2008 01:41 am (UTC) (Link)
This (and enugent's reply) is really interesting stuff. Thanks for writing. :)
chenoameg From: chenoameg Date: April 22nd, 2008 05:16 pm (UTC) (Link)

Parenting and gender

That sounds wonderful. I, too, had a dad that did the same things with my sister & I that he would have done with his sons.

I think you should raise your child in a way appropriate to your child's temperment, and I think that there are some temperments that are more common among females and some that are more common among males. But I think it's the temperment that's important, not the gender of the child, it's just that stupid people can't tell the difference between those things. (In my vocabulary temperment is the innate/biological/unchangeable part of personality.)
chenoameg From: chenoameg Date: April 22nd, 2008 05:20 pm (UTC) (Link)

Newborn advice, while you still have some brain cells of your own

You have nudged into the arena of unsolicited parenting advice! This means that I can now start to unload on you some of my books/opinions/ideas that I have collected over the past 10 years of not getting pregnant. (Yes, my way of coping with infertility is to obsessively plan for parenthood by reading and learning as much as I can from my friends' experiences. Go figure.) So here, compressed into a comment that you can feel free to delete or ignore, are things I think you should know that I have accumulated as I paid obsessive attention to everyone else having babies:

- Before you give birth is actually a good time to read about breastfeeding; at least to have a breastfeeding book you like on hand. Most people have a really hard time taking in new information after birthing and bringing home a newborn, and breastfeeding turns out to be not as intuitive as one might expect. The more private you are the harder it is, because you won't be willing to have all of your mom friends come over and say "nah, that's not a good enough latch" or whatever. Book recommendations: "So that's what there for" and whatever the LLL book is. I think you're the sort of person who will be happier the more information you have; especially if semi-competent medical staff are trying to tell you things about supplementing that don't sound right to you.

- It sucks if birth doesn't go the way you want it to, and it seems like the most important thing in the world. But the good news is 12 months later it is sooo much less important. Book recommendations: "Ina May's Guide to Childbirth" -- even if you are expecting more medical intervention this is excellent just for the multitude of positive birth stores -- and "Thinking Woman's Guide to Childbirth" for more than you would ever want to know about the medicalization of childbirth, except, you really do because you're like that.

- When you have a 0-3 month old there is no question too small to call your pediatrician about. Keep in mind that things that don't upset you may still really upset Warren; try to look into some resources (webpages or books, whatever) that you can turn to to help reassure him when you don't think it's worth calling the doctor.

- Co-parenting is hard. You have this intense physical connection to this new creature, and the person you love next most in the whole world doesn't, but still loves him/her, and you, beyond comprehension. You have to work hard to let Warren make his own parenting choices rather than just falling into the habit of having him always check to you for your lead. There's this impossible balance between what's best for you now, and what's best for the baby now, and what's best for you in the long run, and what's best for you-plural in the long run, and what's best for the baby in the long run. Plus there's sleep deprivation.

- Soon after the baby is born is a good time to think about teaching the baby how to sleep. For the first three months you probably can't teach a baby bad sleep habits, but the habits you instill from 3-6 months are very likely the habits you're going to be stuck with for a couple of years, so make sure they're things you can live with. And really, three months comes fast in the blur of new-parenthood. If you nurse to sleep you'll be doing that for a while, and it will make it hard for Warren to help share the load from you. Fathering-to-sleep is one description of a good concept for a sleeping ritual that isn't breast dependant. Book recommendations (note that they give contradictory advice, I often like that in my advice books): "Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child" and "The No-Cry Sleep Solution".

(After that comes figuring out solid foods, figuring out sharing/outsourcing daycare, figuring out discipline [by which I mean what rules are important and what the consequences are for breaking them, not so much any particular method of consequences], and the ongoing project of balancing your needs with everyone else's. I, of course, have lots of opinions about those puzzles, too.)

Can you tell yet how jealous I am of you? :-)
chenoameg From: chenoameg Date: April 22nd, 2008 05:24 pm (UTC) (Link)

PS

I find that infants under 3 months old seem to me like freely transferable item cards and that being around them is excruciating because they should be _my_ item card, so I'm likely to avoid you for the first few months of your parenting, but I am still interested in being a part of your child's life after that point and I hope that will happen.
psychohist From: psychohist Date: April 22nd, 2008 06:12 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Newborn advice, while you still have some brain cells of your own

Watch out, you might get some unsolicited how-to-get-pregnant advice!

At least it wouldn't be of the "just relax" form.
chenoameg From: chenoameg Date: April 22nd, 2008 06:22 pm (UTC) (Link)

Unsolicited advice

Don't give up and if you meet nurse Pollyanna kill her to get her out of the way at the beginning?

:-)
enugent From: enugent Date: April 23rd, 2008 04:41 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Unsolicited advice

Nuke her from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.
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