Raising My Kids in a Sexist State

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For academics, landing the perfect job in the perfect location is about as likely as winning the lottery. Job-wise, I hit the jackpot. Location-wise, let's just say Indiana is not where I thought I'd end up. 

Don't get me wrong - there are things I love about living here. Sunday afternoon play dates with a gaggle of other academic parent friends. A house with plenty of room for two kids and visiting in-laws, with a vegetable garden out front. A neighborhood where my kids can walk to school, splash in the creek, and ride their bikes on long, paved trails. A ten-minute commute to campus. 

But there are also things I don't love about Indiana. That includes the politics. And the gender politics. In a new working paper, economists Kerwin Kofi Charles, Jonathan Guryan, and Jessica Pan compared the prevalence of sexist attitudes across states and over time. They looked at responses to questions like “Is it much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family?” By those measures, Indiana isn’t the most sexist state in the country - that title goes to Arkansas. But it’s much more Leave it to Beaver than Murphy Brown. 

And those attitudes don't just exist in the abstract. Rather, I see those attitudes firsthand almost every time I'm out with my kids. My daughter's hair took a long time to grow in - I couldn't put it in a ponytail until well after she turned two. And I always dressed her in a mix of colors and styles - new, pink, frilly clothes we got from the grandmas and blue and gray "boy" clothes I bought or got as hand-me-downs from neighbors and friends. Depending on which outfit my daughter was wearing, strangers interacted with her in incredibly different ways. On pink days it was "She's so sweet!" and "Daddy's gonna have to fight the boys off with a stick!" On blue days it was "He's so clever!" And "What a little ninja!" (climbing was and still is one of her favorite activities). 

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Unfortunately, those messages stick. At four years old, my daughter is obsessed with Disney princesses - the crown-wearing, gown-wearing kind with marriage on the mind. She refuses to wear anything but dresses to school, and she won't let me cut her hair - she's convinced other people will think she's a boy. 

Now, it’s easy to say “Don’t worry. She’ll grow out of it.” But that’s not what the research shows. Charles, Guryan, and Pan find that early exposure to sexist attitudes has lasting consequences for young girls. Compared to women who grew up in less sexist states, those who grew up in more sexist states get married younger, are less likely to work for pay, and earn lower wages, even if they move to a different state as adults. Of course, there are lots of factors that influence marriage, work, and wages. But these new findings suggest that background sexism worms its way into girls’ heads and shapes how they see themselves and their futures.

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Now, Charles, Guryan, and Pan focus on how sexist attitudes influence girls, but there’s good reason to think that sexist attitudes embed themselves even more deeply in the brains of boys. Research shows that boys are especially susceptible to sexist influences. When their parents hold more traditional attitudes about gender, boys—but not girls—become more sexist in their own views over time.

And there’s also evidence to suggest that plenty of parents still hold those traditional attitudes—at least for their boys. For girls, it’s increasingly acceptable to break traditional gender norms. As sociologist Emily Kane has found, parents want their daughters to be competitive, athletic, and interested in STEM careers. But most parents are still reluctant to allow their sons to wear dresses, play with dolls, or aspire to “pink-collar” jobs.

Essentially, parents are okay with masculinizing girls, but not with feminizing boys. And we can see those patterns in research on naming trends, as well. For girls, it’s okay—and even beneficial—to have traditionally “masculine” names like Austin or James. But parents almost universally balk at the idea of giving their boys “feminine” names like Anna or Jane or even formerly “masculine” names like Ashley or Shannon.

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The problem with that approach is that it makes masculinity—traditional, macho, sexist masculinity—the default. It teaches boys that there is only one “right” way to be a boy. And it teaches girls that if they want to have power, they need to act like boys.  

Given those findings, I worry just as much about raising a son who isn’t sexist as I worry about raising a daughter who knows how to deal with sexism. And as a parent, I do what I can to counter the sexist messages they encounter every day.

With my daughter, that means telling her she doesn’t have to smile if a stranger tells her to. It means encouraging her to climb trees and get dirty. It means reading her books about strong women and changing the gender of classic characters to show her an even broader range. It means letting her keep the princess dolls she gets from Grandma while also having long conversations about the problematic stereotypes those princesses represent.

With my son, countering sexist messages means sending him to daycare in a unicorn onesie and pink socks. It means giving him dolls and kitchen toys to play with. It means never telling him not to cry. Because boys also need to be seen as cute and sweet. And they need to know there's nothing wrong with care work or with being sensitive and kind.

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With both my kids, countering a culture of sexism also means teaching them about consent. Teaching them that they have the right to choose who touches their body and that they have to respect others’ choices, as well.  

Gender norms and stereotypes don’t need any help from me. My kids are constantly bombarded with messages (at school, in the media, from extended family members) telling them how boys and girls should look and think and talk and act.

As a parent, I can offer a counter message. A reminder that the way “most people do things” is not the only way. Maybe that’s why, despite her princess obsession, my daughter’s favorite color is still green. Or why the one thing she wanted for Christmas last year was a motorized, John Deere-style tractor.

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I want my son to have that same freedom and flexibility when it comes to gender. Because it’s great to teach girls to speak up, play soccer, and love science and math and technology. But if we don't teach boys to be gentle, to play house, and love reading and writing and art, we run the risk of further devaluing femininity and further reifying the kind of toxic masculinity that is damaging to both boys and girls.  

Essentially, for our girls’ sake and for our boys’, we can’t just let gender bend one way.

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