I read an anecdote on Twitter recently about a little boy who asked a face-painter for a butterfly. His mother wouldn’t let him have a butterfly – she wanted something more “boyish”. The child really wanted the butterfly, but the dad got involved too, and there was no way they were allowing it. It’s a sad story, but just one anecdote, and I replied to say there are lots and lots of parents who let their little boys have the butterfly or anything else they ask for – rainbows and love-hearts are popular in my house – all is not lost.
The debate went on, and the point was made that even if children aren’t exposed to sexist stereotypes at home, it’s insidious everywhere else, and starts to creep in particularly when they start school. I agreed, and mentioned that my five-year-old is already in school but it hasn’t stopped him playing with his hand-me-down toys yet, regardless of their colour. I’m not naive about the impact of the outside world, but I was sure that the influence from home was stronger than anything else, at least for now.
And I was right – but not in a good way.
Just twenty-four hours later, my five-year-old was helping me make dinner while his big sisters did a jigsaw on the floor. He nodded towards them saying, “I won’t have to cook dinners when I’m big, but the girls will.”
I asked him why that would be. “Because I will go to an office like Daddy, and they will be at home to cook the dinner like you do,” he said.
“But why do you think you’ll go to an office and the girls won’t? Of course they’ll have jobs too!” I said, though I knew where it was going and why.
“Because daddies go to offices and mums don’t.”
“But don’t you remember that I used to work in an office? And what about all your aunts – they go to work every day? And your friends’ mums?” I went on to list out his friends whose mothers work outside the home (most of them), my friends who work outside the home (most of them) and to remind him again that I used to go to an office every day too. I got the five-year-old equivalent of a shrug – a not-convinced “mmm”.
“And I still have a job – it’s just that I cook dinner now too because I’m here in the afternoons and Dad isn’t,” I said to him. “By the way, what is my job?”
“Caring for us?” he tried, looking a little unsure.
“Yes, absolutely, I look after you, but when I’m at my laptop and telling you to pretend I’m not here because I’m working on writing – that’s my work. Isn’t it?”
Another mmm-shrug. “Well, when I’m a grown-up, I will work in an office and I will be married to someone and she will cook the dinner.”
It doesn’t matter what’s on Twitter, what’s in school, or what’s in my head. They learn what they live, and a mere two years into working from home, I’ve set my five-year-old’s stereotype barometer back fifty years.
And I realise I probably shouldn’t overthink it – he’s only five, and he’s unfailingly honest when explaining his view of the world. As long as I keep saying all the right things and teaching him that girls and boys can do anything they want to do, I’m guessing he’ll be okay. But perhaps to be on the safe side, I should cook fewer dinners.