A few stories.
I remember getting on an airplane, headed to Disneyland with my family, full of all the can’t-contain-the-excitement feels that you expect from a kid headed to Disneyland. I was probably about seven years old, and my brothers were younger. (Still are, actually.)
The flight attendant cheerily brought us crayons and coloring books. (That seems strange now. Do flight attendants really give coloring books to kids? Did they back in the day? I don’t even know.) There were three coloring books–one Barbie, and two dinosaurs. As she held them out for us, I didn’t realize that I’d already been assigned the Barbie coloring book; I innocently thought we were being given options. I had lots of dolls, but Barbies were never my favorite. I loved The Land Before Time though! I watched that movie so many times, I still remember the Pizza Hut commercial that came before it started on the VHS. (See? YouTube remembers it too!) So with the coloring books fanned out in front of us, I quickly claimed a dinosaur book, excited to start filling in the “long necks” and “three horns.”
Then I saw the adults giving each other, and me, The Look.
Let’s describe The Look a bit. It isn’t an angry look. It’s a mix of awkwardness, embarrassment, disappointment. It seems to beg, “Please don’t make us explain why that thing you just did is wrong. It just is, and you should know better.”
It wasn’t until I saw The Look that I realized there had been two boy books, and one girl book. I don’t remember for sure what happened next, but I think I held tight to my chosen dinosaur pages. I’m not sure if one of my brothers ended up with Barbie, or if they complained about it, or if a third dinosaur book was rustled up, or if I folded and took the Barbie book after all…. But I do know that I learned a few things that day– 1) I should play with girl things. 2) Dinosaurs are not girl things. 3) Boys shouldn’t have to play with girl things.
I was in a toy store, looking at dolls. Despite the Barbies vs. dinosaurs mix up, I really did love dolls, and the 90s had so many great dolls. There were Magic Nursery Babies, Kid Sister, Baby Alive, Quints, the doll whose makeup magically appeared when you painted on water, the doll whose hair grew and changed color, the dolls that smelled like cupcakes…. It was a great time for dolls.
The 90s were also all about token racial diversity, so some of the dolls that were white in all the ads, also had a black counterpart on the store shelves. This particular day, it was the black version of a doll that caught my fancy, so I pointed it out and said, “I want that one!” I wasn’t trying to make a statement for social justice or anything; I just thought she was pretty.
The adults gave The Look again. I saw it.
“Are you sure?” I was asked.
“No,” I mumbled.
I don’t think I got a doll that day. I think I escaped the doll aisle and went to look at stuffed unicorns or something. I don’t remember. But I do remember learning that white girls play with white girl toys.
So many rules to remember!
I grew up, and became a teacher. Now I listen to my students define a nurse as, “a girl doctor.” I hear girls say they want to be a doctor when they grow up, and the boys shoot them down with, “Don’t you mean a nurse?” I hear the girl who loves soccer say she’s not allowed to play like her brother can. I hear the boy who doesn’t like sports say he can’t just have a conversation with his dad like his sports-loving brothers can.
Every time, I try to give my version of The Look. I try to express my disapproval of restrictive and nonsensical gender rules. My look does nothing. I can tell nobody even sees it.
So, during the career unit, I invited one nurse to speak with my classes–my RN brother skyped in. Talked all about the work he does in the ER, and the work it’s taken to get there. He didn’t say a word about gender, but the message was clear. Nursing is a great career option for men and women. Both. (Incidentally, his two-year-old daughter kept interrupting, waving her toy dinosaurs in front of the screen, and roaring for us…. Right on, lil’ sister suffragette!)
A female doctor spoke to some of my classes about her work with natural medicine, and the people she’s been able to help around the world. A female PA talked about her career, and completely won over the kids when she gave them surgical caps and masks to dress up in.
We heard from women who practice law and accounting.
We heard from men who write.
We heard from different kinds of therapists who work with the disabled…. We also heard from disabled people about their careers as a graphic designer, news producer, social media outreach specialist, and software engineer.
The year before, we wrapped up a unit of study about the brain with another guest speaker–a neurosurgeon, and a woman.
It’s easy to teach traditional social norms. You don’t even have to try; a slight and momentary facial expression will do the job. But unteaching those norms? Teaching kids to think beyond social norms? Takes a lot more work. A simple Look isn’t going to cut it. Occasionally repeating a throwaway line, “Everybody’s equal,” isn’t enough. You have to be really intentional about what they’re seeing, hearing, and doing. They have to see behavior that falls within the traditional norm, and outside of the norm, and somewhere in the middle, and feel that it’s all worthy of approval.
And you have to mean it!