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Is It Sexist to Raise Kids To Be Ladies and Gentlemen?

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Dr. Wendy Walsh: We all know about gender-neutral parenting -- the clever idea that girls should be given as many trucks and action figures as Barbies, and boys should be assigned to as many household chores as girls. That part all makes sense to me. But what about the old-fashioned idea of raising well-mannered ladies and gentlemen? Is that sexist?

A few nights ago, I witnessed such a thing. My family joined another for dinner at their home, followed by an outdoor glow-in-the-dark art exhibition. I happen to be a single mother with two daughters, and in my house, we all do "boy" and "girl" behaviors as a necessity -- although I admit that my girls' toy chest is seriously lacking in trucks and action figures. The family we joined has two girls and one boy. During dinner, I noticed that the father (who is from a former British colony and probably had a strict British school education) told his daughters to sit up straight and eat like "ladies." OK, so I just tell my girls that it's gross to show their food when it is half-chewed. Except for the semantics, we are on the same course. 

But then something happened in the car that made me think about the gender-biased-parenting debate. The father was putting together some glow-in-the-dark glasses for the kids to wear (no better way to keep track of a kid in the dark than to put a light on them), and the boy, being a perfectly normal boy, grabbed the first pair of glasses off the assembly line. However, he was stopped and admonished by his father, who reminded him that he should act like a gentleman and always take care of ladies first. Then the father told the boy that he would let him choose which young lady he would give the glasses to. 

I'll admit, the feminist in me was a bit startled. After all, we gals are certainly able to grab our own glasses. But the woman in me felt a wave of deep pleasure and satisfaction: "You tell 'em, Daddy!" I even turned my head to the darkened car window, and a tiny tear watered up. My reaction was spawned by this thing I learned long after I was conditioned by a feminist mother: We can all be equal ... until we become pregnant. The very fact that a woman's biology is held captive for years of gestation and nursing makes the playing field uneven. 

The incident reminded me of one of my favorite books, "The Equality Trap," by Mary Ann Mason. In it, the Berkeley law professor tells us that to buy into an idea of equality across the board will only endorse a culture that does not support mothers. So when I heard that father attempt to raise a young man who would have compassion for women, my heart sang. 

And lest you think that the family in question subscribes to some 19th-century version of traditional gender roles across the board, I should tell you that both parents helped serve dinner and that Dad was putting together the toys during the car ride because Mom was busy driving the car.

next: Mom's Intuition Saves Daughter's Life
4 comments so far | Post a comment now
Russell September 30, 2010, 6:27 AM

No, it’s not sexist to teach boys to act like gentlemen and girls to act like ladies.

One of the reasons teen boys and men don’t respect girls, and women is because they never learned it in childhood.

Boys and girls are different not only physically but mentally and emoitionally.

It’s not that girls are not capable of opening a door, opening a jar, or pulling out a seat but rather it’s about teaching boys respect for girls.

This is where boys and girls are different emoitionally girls are naturally care more for others than boys (not to say there aren’t execeptions). Boys have to be taught respect for others and respect for girls because boys don’t naturally have respect for girls.

zandhmom September 30, 2010, 8:42 AM

It’s not sexist at all t0 expect children to have proper manners. I remember when my son was 10 and he hit his little sister one day and I explained to him (once again) that boys should not hit girls and he responsed by saying “Well, I thought boys and girls were equal? If a girl hits me, I’m gonna hit her back!” I explained that even though boys and girls are equal, boy are naturally stronger than girls and when boys hit, they tend to hurt more. Well, my son is now a young man and I can tell you that he would never hit a girl. No matter how much what the two sexes to be considered the same, they are not. I expect my son to be respectful toward girls and I expect my daughter to be ladylike. I wish more parents would teach their children real manners again.

KS September 30, 2010, 9:58 AM

If it’s sexist so be it. It’s the way we are raising our four boys and when they grow up they will simply have to find a woman who appreciates being treated with common decency.

I will never understand why in the world people think it became the moniker of the feminist movement for men to be rude to women and women to have to behave like men. That’s not what it was about, it’s what it was twisted into by people who were anti feminist. Sexist is when parents teach their girls they can only raise children or stay in the home because they are women.

Being treated like a woman doesn’t equal oppression. Actually when it’s done right your views are considered on an equal level. Boys who are taught to be self centered and not consider anyone else usually tend to be that way in their marriages too.

catch January 4, 2011, 6:22 PM

This is what I consistently see from “feminists”, demanding equality except when inequality offers advantages, which invalidates their argument and reveals the truth: feminism isn’t about equality after all.

The reality is, equality is not realistic or desirable, lest men/boys treat women/girls as rough and with as little regard as they may treat other men/boys, and even feminists deep down know that.

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