Jane Bradley: Is gender-neutral parenting possible?

Why should it be presumed little girls wouldn't like dinosaurs. Picture: Toby Williams

Why should it be presumed little girls wouldn't like dinosaurs. Picture: Toby Williams

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MY daughter had her first experience of sexism recently. She’s two.

We were on a trip to Dobbies garden centre in a family attempt to go all Good Life this summer. In our postage stamp garden, we were planning to grow potatoes, courgettes and inside, from a special kit, button mushrooms.

I say were, because the mushroom kit quickly yielded three “fruit” – gobbled in the toddler’s spaghetti that night – before dying a death.

The courgettes, we enthusiastically seeded in little pots in the house, then started to plant outside last weekend, before reading the packet: “Do not plant before May”. Oh.

The potatoes should be OK though, surely? Even we can’t kill potatoes.

Anyway, there we were, laden down with seed packets and germinating boxes and such paraphernalia, when the two-year-old asked if she could have some gardening gloves of her own. She was tired, she said, of getting her hands all muddy whenever we force her outside to dig about in the fresh air.

Toddler size gardening gloves were not easy to spot, so we asked a member of staff. “We’ve not got much in children’s gloves,” he said. “There’s some bumblebee ones here, but they’d be a bit big. The only tiny ones we’ve got are boys’s really – they’re blue and they’ve got dinosaurs on them.”

He didn’t mean anything by it. He was just trying to be helpful. But the damage was done.

My daughter, who loves dinosaurs, was initially very excited. She put them on before we even got to the checkout and wore them for most of the journey home. A few minutes before we reached our house, however, the man’s words seemed to sink in. She suddenly took off her dinosaur gloves and threw them on to the seat beside her.

“I can’t wear these!” she wailed. “The man said they’re for boys.”

After a lot of cajoling, she grudgingly agreed that this idea was nonsense. That there was no such thing as gloves “for girls” or “for boys”. That she was just as entitled as Sam next door or Luke at nursery to wear gloves with dinosaurs emblazoned across them. It terrified me that one innocent remark from an otherwise very nice man in a shop could give my daughter the idea that there were things girls could not do.

A similar anti-feminist incident occurred a few weeks later – this time, entirely our fault. Her new bike needed the seat raising and I told her I’d go inside and get the tool kit to do the necessary.

“No, no Mummy,” she said, anxiously. “You can’t do that. You might hurt yourself. They’re Daddy’s tools. We have to wait til he gets home.” She’s quite right. I probably would hurt myself. But so would my husband. We’re about as equally useless at DIY as each other. But I realised that we probably do refer to the big yellow crate as “Daddy’s tool box”.

I’d like to think we are two of the least sexist people on the planet. But it seems even we have let some gender bias creep in, even, ironically, when it is not justified. It made me wonder how much more we do that in our day to day life than we think.

We both go to work; we have tried very hard to make sure the childcare is split equally. When my mum says things like, “Well, for most men, changing nappies just isn’t their thing”, we put our hands over our daughters’s ears and start singing “la la la la” very loudly.

But then again, in other areas, we have slipped into our traditional roles. Our daughter probably notices that I do the vast majority of the washing. This one’s justified. He would ruin my delicate clothes.

That Daddy tends to go into the loft when things need to be stored. Again, justified. He is bigger than I am for lifting and less likely to kill himself on the rickety ladder.

But these things – some of which are just chance – are becoming ingrained into her brain as boys’ things and girls’s things and I’m not sure I like that.

And the dinosaur gloves? She still wears them, but mentions that they are “really for boys” ever time she puts them on.

However, it turns out on closer inspection that they’re actually frogs, not dinosaurs. Much more gender neutrally acceptable, no? Perhaps if the Dobbies chap had noticed that off the bat then we wouldn’t have had this problem in the first place.

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