Balancing the Scales

scale2I don’t usually do this.  This is not a political blog.  It’s a child development and parenting blog.  But this time, I feel like i have to take this little departure off the main road.  Bear with me.  Or skip it–there’s freedom of choice here. See that little “x” up there in the corner?  Click on it if you want.  I won’t be hurt.

I feel like this needs to be said.  Partially because I’m feeling frequently and strongly misunderstood in conversation.  Partially because I’m feeling frustrated (as ever) by the insistence, so prevalent in our culture these days, that “if you don’t believe x, you must believe the opposite of x”, as if there are no options in the middle.  Partially because it’s something that’s important to me personally, and in this one little area, it seems to be bubbling up in my work with parents with ever greater frequency.  It’s time to try to sort it out a bit more, and, honestly, to speak my piece.  Hey, my blog, my rules.

Here it is:  I seem to get into a lot of conversations with people, both in real life and online, about what they perceive as a phenomenally strong position or “push back” against social norms on my part.  Mostly, it seems to come up around gender role stereotypes and media images and characters, two categories that overlap, but are not identical.

It usually looks something like this:

I say that I highly value respecting our children’s choices and perspectives and honoring their individuality.

I say, at some point, that I am not a fan of Disney and I chose to restrict (though not forbid) exposure to Disney or princess movies or heavily sex-stereotyped television or clothing selections.

I am told that I’m being hypocritical because I say I want to honor children’s choices, but I only want to honor them as long as their choices are not Disney or princesses or Transformers.  If those are their choices, I don’t honor them, so I’m not really letting my child be an individual.

I try to explain that I don’t find the two stances hypocritical or contradictory in any way.  And i try to explain why. I try, I really try.

And people still seem to come away with one of two conclusions about my position. Either:

1) I’m hypocritical, but I won’t admit it and really what I want is to control my child (and possibly theirs, too) and not respect children’s free choice, or

2) I hate pink and all things “feminine” and believe that girls should never be able to play with Barbies or wear dresses because I think they will grow up to have eating disorders and be uncritical thinkers, and that I think that all boys who play with superheroes and monster trucks will grow up to be insensitive brutes.  In other words, that I will only be happy with a magical entirely gender-neutral world for our children.

I am 100% certain that neither of those two extreme conclusions accurately represent my position, so despite what sometimes seems like futility, I’m going to try to explain again, and hope that I make sense and that’s it’s helpful to someone out there (and accept that maybe it still won’t make sense to some folks–and that that’s out of my control.)

To talk about this, we have to talk about vacuums. And scales.  And equal and opposite reactions.  And power.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I said we have to talk about vacuums.

Not this kind:


This kind:

You see, that whole idea that we can just offer options and “let our children decide” presumes that we live in a vacuum.  The space kind.  The void kind.  A space in which there are no pressures.  And we don’t live in a vacuum.

We live in a society.  A media-filled, 24-hour-television, billboards-on-every-road, advertisements-on-every bus, magazines-at-every-register, toys-at-every-restaurant, movies-on-demand-in-our-homes, cultural-norms-in-every-conversation, expectations-at-every-turn, children-in-school-with-children-who-have-unrestricted-internet-access society.  We live in a society filled to the brim and beyond with pressures, expectations, rules, ways of looking, ways of speaking, ways of being, and more and more and more rules.  They’re everywhere.  We all know what they are, whether we follow them or not.

A few examples.  We’re supposed to dress baby girls in pink and boys in blue (we actually had a stranger yell at us as if we were abusive parents when our daughter was a few weeks old and was wearing a light blue outfit) or at the very least, both boys and girls should be in green or yellow or red.  We are not supposed to put bows or hairbands in baby boys’ hair. We’re supposed to plan on growing up heterosexual (yes, even in this age of relatively powerful acceptance of a range of sexual orientations), so much so that we call three year olds “boyfriend and girlfriend” and refer to toddlers as “ladies men.” We are not supposed to put newborn girls in clothes with tools or football players on them.  We’re supposed to expect and accept that boys will be wild and girls will be well-mannered.

The thing is, when an immense and all-consuming set of expectations exists and is bearing down on us (which it is, no matter who we are, and no matter where we live, whether we agree to recognize it or not), it has an effect.  If we do nothing or imagine that we are immune to it, that set of expectations becomes the default.  You know that adage “Silence is complicity”?  It’s kinda like that.  If we don’t fight it or speak out against media or gender norms, we are effectively agreeing with them. And maybe that’s okay–maybe you don’t have strong objections to the dominant social norms.  Some people do. Some people don’t.

I have been repeatedly told that I am not allowing my child to have unfettered choice and cannot be fully respecting who she is because I limit her options and experiences (by discouraging Disney films, for example.)  Maybe your daughter wants to be Sleeping Beauty, and you are stealing that experience from her by not allowing her to have a Disney Sleeping Beauty dress.  Yes.  Maybe I am.  And if I decide to allow her to have a Disney Sleeping Beauty dress (which I might), she would still have experiences “stolen from her” and a set of limited options-just a different set, one that is even more restrictive and narrow than mine.  In my view, there is no such thing as “choosing whatever you want” in a society that has pressures and expectations at the level that currently exist.  The pressures are the water that we swim in and the air that we breathe–to imagine that they don’t impact our children is like saying that we can just choose to not get wet in water or to somehow stop and start breathing at will.

So.. what if a parent genuinely does want their child to make their own choices and be their own person, free of restrictions from parents OR the media and popular culture?   Personally, I think genuine free choice in our culture is an illusion with the possible exception of living a radical unschooling life completely off the grid with no media or internet access (and I’m not sure about that either.)  But can we get close?  Ah.  Great question.

I think we can get close.  After much study, I am convinced that the only way to get close is to first completely balance the scales, so that our children have a perfectly level playing field (or the closest to balanced as is humanly possible).

So where do we start?

The default (what we get if we do nothing) is this:balance_scale-300x225The heavier/lower side is the weight of our culture, media, and society, which is immense.  The lighter/higher side is the options that run counter to the dominant cultural messages (like putting hair bows in any child’s hair if they want them, regardless of sex), which can be challenging.  The only way to make the scale even is to add to the counter-cultural side. It’s simple physics, weights and measures.  And in that balanced state, our children can at least hypothetically have genuine “free choice” because they do not have greater pressure on either side.

So what does that look like, in practice?  That’s where it gets tricky–and that’s where the source of the confusion lies.

Many of us think that balancing the scales means that we simply offer our children a range of toys and clothing and we let them choose (purportedly with no preference or bias of our own–and none from our extended families or friends, either–which is pretty hard to pull off for most of us.)  If we’re offering our daughters trucks and trains and superheroes and princesses and heels and barbies, then we think we’re providing that balanced scale, and whatever they choose is great, right?  In my experience, this is how the majority of people see it.

“I offered everything, she just prefers princesses.  I didn’t decide that for her or want that for her, she just chose it, it’s what she loves.  I offered her boys toys too–she wasn’t interested.  I can’t help that.  I even wish she had liked more rough and tumble stuff, but she’s just a girlie girl.”

Look at that scale up there (not the one at the top, the one just a couple of paragraphs back).  If we add equal amounts of things to both sides of that scale, is it balanced?  Why would we think it we just offer equal amounts of both categories that that would create an even playing field?  As they say, “when the deck is stacked against you…”

It takes phenomenal energy and intention (and discomfort) to counter the pressure of the media (if that’s even really possible), to really try to balance the scales and essentially make the power of the media and culture neutral.  It’s a lot of work, so much work that a lot of us find it too demanding or absurd.  But a few warriors do rage on.

Know this:  the parents who are choosing to speak up are not trying to get rid of Easy Bake ovens and princesses and fairies.  We don’t hate pink or Disney.  We don’t have an agenda to raise our girls as boys or our boys as girls.  We just want the scales even so that our children have a fighting chance of making a fully authentic free choice from a neutral starting point…and to do that, we have to be as extreme and strong on the “other side” of the scale as the media and culture is on its side.  Anything short of that, and the media/culture side stays heavier.

That’s what it looks like in practice:  Piling it on one side.

I know.  I know that to many people who are reading, this sounds crazy.  Or excessive.  Or hopeless.

“You can’t fight it, so why try?  They like what they like.”

“I want my daughter to dress like other kids, I want her to be popular and feel like she fits in”

“I don’t want my son to be laughed at.  He can wear a princess dress at home, but he’s not going to wear it out of the house.  That’s just cruel.”

I know.  You think I don’t know.  But I do.

This week, a parent said to me “My daughter loves pink toenail polish.  What’s wrong with that?”  My answer?  Nothing!  Absolutely nothing.  If she loves pink toenail polish, let her put on pink toenail polish and love it with her.  And if your son loves pink toenail polish, let him put it on and love it with him, too.  Nothing wrong with pink toenail polish.

Listen. It’s okay if you think it’s crazy or it’s not that important to you or you think it’s impossible or futile or excessive or weird.  Really.  It’s okay.  The beauty of this gig is that we get to make the decisions that we think are best for our children. We get to the make the decisions for our families that match the values that we hold.  We do not, however, get to be immune from the power of culture and media.

All of our children are inextricably shaped by what surrounds them and the pressures and limits placed on them.  We can shape those limits as parents, we can let the culture and media shape them, or we can try to find balance.

The parents and others that you meet–online and in person–who you think seem extreme or restrictive are not condemning your choices.  No person’s views invalidate another’s views.  And they’re not even (believe it or not) condemning the toys or the clothes or the characters or the nail polish or condemning children’s legitimate interest in such things.

They’re simply saying that we don’t live in a vacuum.  They’re simply asking us to recognize that children didn’t and don’t come to those interests magically and spontaneously, but that their interests (which appear to be solely their own doing) have in fact been shaped and continue to be influenced by the pressures and norms of our culture, via parents, friends, and media–that they weren’t interested in frilly dresses the moment that they emerged from the womb, that liking Disney princesses is not in their DNA.

The children’s interests aren’t wrong (no matter what they are).  And their interests don’t need to be stifled.  All that we need do, if we are concerned about these issues, is to recognize and acknowledge that these are not original interests and thoughts, sprung fully formed from the child without any social or cultural or media influence.  If we acknowledge that, and we’re okay with it, then so be it.  And if we acknowledge it and are not okay with it, we can work to change it without squelching our children’s interests.  Mind you–no one is suggesting that our children be the victims of overly restrictive efforts for social change…you might actually be surprised to know that most parents who oppose stereotyping actually have children who have seen Disney films, have girls who sometimes wear nail polish, and do have some sex stereotyped toys and clothes in their homes.  Like i said, this isn’t about black or white, all or nothing.  It’s about intent, conscious decision-making, and acknowledgement.

I’m really only asking for one thing here, and that is for you to try to understand this:  the people who you encounter that are determined to point these things out–the ones that feel like naysayers or curmudgeons or killjoys–are not against you and not demeaning you and not telling you what you should and should not do with your children.  They are simply very deeply committed to social change.  They are people who do not feel okay with the dominant culture messages. They are simply trying to counteract a pressure that is working overtime to tell children (and adults!) who they should and must be.

To do that, they have to balance the scales.  And to balance the scales, they have to add weight only to the side of the scale that is contrary to society’s norms.  They don’t want that side heavier.  They want it even.  Because then, all of our children can freely choose, and we can learn about who they truly are, unfettered by noisy messages that do not belong to them.

It’s okay if this isn’t your thing.  It’s not okay, in my opinion, to tell others that it shouldn’t be their thing.  This is how social change happens.  By resistance.  Strong resistance.  Stubborn resistance.  By working tirelessly to balance the scales, even when it’s unpopular.  Not everyone agrees or wants to be a part.  Some do.

This is not about us vs them (I don’t even believe in such a thing.)  This is not about “hating princeses” or “hating Disney” or believing all children must have gender neutral interests (as if that’s even possible.)  This is not about taking a side.  This is not about polarization of any kind.  This is about acknowledging and sometimes objecting to massive social pressures.

That’s all.  Really.

Read up.  Give it some thought.  And come to your own conclusions.  As ever, that’s all that I ask.

For those interested in reading more about these topics, I recommend the following resources:

Cinderella Ate My Daughter — a book by Peggy Orenstein

Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween – a book by Melissa Atkins Wardy (accompanying blog HERE)

A Mighty Girl  – a website and resource list of products and reviews for “parents, teachers, and others dedicated to raising smart, confident, and courageous girls”  “Girls do not have to be relegated to the role of sidekick or damsel in distress; they can be the leaders, the heroes, the champions that save the day, find the cure, and go on the adventure.”

Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood – an organization whose mission is to “support parents’ efforts to raise healthy families by limiting commercial access to children and ending the exploitive practice of child-targeted marketing…In working for the rights of children to grow up—and the freedom for parents to raise them—without being undermined by corporate interests.”

Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media – the only research-based organization working within the media and entertainment industry to engage, educate, and influence the need to dramatically improve, gender balance, reduce stereotyping and create diverse female characters in entertainment targeting children 11 and under.

Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls – an organization dedicated to helping young people cultivate their authentic selves. Their motto is: Change the World by Being Yourself. Their  goal is “to provide a healthy alternative to so much that is being marketed to young people on the internet. We emphasize intelligence and imagination over “fitting in.” We celebrate curiosity over gossip. We are a place where people can truly be their weird and wonderful selves.”

Pigtail Pals and Ballcap Buddies – a website and facebook page whose mission is to change the way we think about our kids.

The Representation Project – A Media Literacy focused film and film company.  “You Can’t Be What You Can’t See”

Blogs & blog posts on related topics:
Why My Daughter Doesn’t Watch Disney Movies
Disney Princess Recovery, a “site which logs the experiences of one parent and my quest to reclaim my daughter’s imagination after it was hijacked by Disney Princesses.” (this blog has moved on to other though related topics, so it is mostly the early posts that are most related)
Little Girls or Little Women? The Disney Princess Effect

17 thoughts on “Balancing the Scales

  1. Thank you for articulating so well what I try to explain to people when I object to the insistence of gender stereotyping around my daughters, and my choice to avoid the Disney Princess syndrome.

    • OK I am a 67yr old Grandad but here goes! Excellent article, could not agree more! Both of my daughters would support you completely and do apply the same principles to their children. Twin girls and the other one has a boy and a girl. However both have expressed concerns about possible problems when their children interact with other people’s children. Peer pressure from children brought up in families that do not aim for gender neutral parenting /choices are overwhelming in numbers in their school etc. Peer pressure/rejection/bullying is very powerful, even more powerful than the media pressure which has influenced those other children and their parents. I would therefore argue that resilience/self assurance/tolerance is in my view the most important thing that a parent should teach/encourage alongside choices. Incidentally they all adore Frozen and the twins and the boy all have Princess Elsa dresses, they asked for them. The approach you advocate is very close to my heart as I have always suffered from the fact that my parents did not want a boy when I was born and this has affected my life such that I have had Mental Health problems throughout.

      • Thanks for commenting, Roger. Yes, of course, resilience, self-confidence, tolerance are all extraordinarily important things. Emphasizing one thing does not preclude emphasizing other things. There are many parts to parenting.

  2. This is exactly how I feel put down in words. I hate having to defend my efforts but you have helped be be strong in my decision to do what I think is right for my 6 yo daughter and 3 yo son. Unfortunately for my daughter, peer pressure seems to have slowly crept into her life and we have a full blown, pink, girly, princess-wannabe and she is resistant to anything different. I will keep offering her the alternatives in the hope that she learns that it’s always ok to be different. My son, luckily, is not at school yet so plays and likes whatever takes his fancy free of restrictions. He is not totally free of influence (he already has opinions on what are boys toys ) but all I can do is keep trying to balance that scale.

    • The more you push, the more resistant she will be. Let her do the pink princess-y thing, and keep making sure she has options. It will pass. Take heart–I don’t know any 10 year olds who are into that stuff.

    • May I offer you a different perspective – one of a daughter who is now a teen. When you push against this stage, the message she’s getting is “It’s not ok to be what you are.” The message she hears is that’s not ok to be different – from you. By fighting her current frilly, pink, princess wannabe phase you may in fact be giving the exact message you’re trying to combat. Pink, frilly, princess is really just a color and a phase. Of my daughter’s friends, the pinkest, frilliest, princess I knew “back then” is now a kick-butt lacrosse player who is more comfortable in her gear than in a dress. My daughter? Well, don’t tell her she can’t do something her brother can’t or she’ll hand your head back to you. She’s feisty and she’s assertive and she’s beautifully, wonderfully, self-aware and self-confident. That wasn’t because she didn’t get to frills and pink and all that. It’s because when she wanted to prance around in a frilly dress and a crown, she did – and when she wanted to climb a tree in her fairy dress, she did. And when she wanted to sit in her princess crown and push cars around a racetrack, she did. And when she wanted to scamper up next to her brother to help make dinner with him and me, she did. And when she wanted to wear her get-up while riding a bike and trying to outrace the UPS man in his truck – she did, because she believed she could do anything and look like anything while she did it – and we didn’t tell her otherwise. Pushing against the ‘girly’ doesn’t make a girl less girly. You want to encourage self-acceptance and general acceptance no matter what she is — but then you don’t give it when she’s this? To me, that is counterproductive, not balancing.

  3. Thanks so much for mentioning my work and company in this post. I loved what you had to say on gender stereotypes in childhood and using media literacy to balance things out. I am sharing it with the Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies community today!
    🙂 Melissa Atkins Wardy

  4. It is hard to figure out what is natural and what is media. We walk by the aisles with dolls and princess stuff and I always ask my older son if he wants to look at those aisles. Sometimes he does, but not as often as star wars and transformers, which he is really into. Then again, I’m not a girly lady. I hated dolls as a kid and I liked transformers, He-Man, and My little ponies. So, I don’t even know what to do sometimes, but I am trying. My little toddler will wear bright leggings or “girl” shirts…
    I sell headbands of etsy for “boys and not-so-girly girls.” I had to smile when I saw, “We are not supposed to put bows or hairbands in baby boys’ hair.” Some of them have traditional “boy stuff” like trucks, some of them have neutral spirals or birds. I have ones with dinosaurs and spaceships that have girl models. I really try to push having all things for all kids, but also embrace the “boy” stuff. Not sure how to have that balance sometimes.

  5. May I offer a different angle? Here’s the thing, My 12 year old is growing up in an age where girls and STEM messages are heavy, hard and often. Girls are pushed to consider STEM in school, in Scouts, well frankly all over the place. There are programs and articles and all sorts of stuff pushing, guiding, encouraging. And do you know what I see, with a 12 year old girl who is a gifted writer and artist, and who works hard to keep up with math and who can pass her science classes without effort but doesn’t really get excited about them? She’s smart. She’s in a complete roster of gifted classes in her middle school. She doesn’t like math. It’s not that she can’t do it. It’s that its not natural for her and it’s not easy. On the other side, she can create amazingly, full pictures with words or with a pencil to draw them out in rich detail like it was as basic as raising her arms in the morning and stretching. Do you know what message she hears? When the links you shared above push STEM topics at her? When the school and Scouts offer girl-only STEM related programs? She hears that because she’s not a natural in math, she’s not smart. I’m not kidding. THAT is what she comes away with. And its not just her. That’s what her peers come away with. My daughter and her friends — brilliant girls with high honor grades in high honors classes, walk away feeling like they aren’t smart enough or they aren’t good enough because the idea of a career in science and math doesn’t appeal to them. That a focus on robotics bores them and an afternoon with higher math concepts is their least favorite way to spend a day. They come away feeling like their passions within arts and humanities make them less than. And to me, that stinks too. The problem I have with balancing the scales is that your child *is* looking to *YOU* above other influences to help define the world. When you’re making the conscious effort to pile up one side of the scale against the other in an attempt to create a sense of balance for you, your child is simply seeing that you embrace the one side – not that you’re ok with the other as well. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are parents that make this work. Parents that don’t balk and panic when their daughter wants to be Elsa for an afternoon. The danger comes when a child wants to give “traditional” (hate that term in this context) a go and we actively discourage it. That’s a message too. And again, from a mom with a teenager that considers herself ‘less intelligent’ than her math whiz brother and friends (boy and girl), that’s a dangerous message too. I have never told either kid they are anything less than they are no matter what they want to do – I have never discouraged or encouraged them to pick and choose. My daughter was never a princess girl, not because I limited her exposure, but because she just wasn’t. But she had been, that really would have been ok too. And now I work hard to combat the new messages she’s hearing that she somehow owes it to herself and her womankind to be excited about math and science. I work hard on a regular basis to tell her it’s ok to be an artist – as long as she’s the best, dang artist she can be. I work hard to tell her that what the things she enjoys does not define her worth or her intellect. And yet, I talk to the wind at this stage of her life because today, in a world where we want to tell children they really can be anything they want to be, we’ve managed to push so hard to ‘other side’ to prove it that we’re sort of messing up the message a bit. (On the flip side, my 14 year old son has a friend who told his mom he wants to be a teacher…and he was told, “Only if he’s a college professor.” Equally bad message.)

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