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.