By Anupreet Sandhu Bhamra
“Look, Mom, Kabir is pretending to be a mommy!” My then-four-year-old daughter pointed enthusiastically at her year-old brother, who was lovingly pushing a doll stroller around the living room. He had carefully placed a toy baby in it.
My first reaction: overwhelming love; and my second: correcting my daughter. I told Mehar that little Kabir wasn’t pretending to be a mommy but to be a loving daddy. I reminded her how her own father plays that role. In short, age-appropriate words, I said: “Mommies and daddies both care for their children.”
She nodded. And let out another cry of joy as she saw Kabir pick up the “baby” and plant a kiss on its plastic cheek. “Look, Mommy, Kabir is kissing the baby just like Daddy kisses me.”
I let out a sigh of relief. As any parent can relate, it is a constant battle to “correct” children. It is a struggle to maintain a balance between overly correcting them and ignoring their actions. Apart from a general world consensus on teaching kids the basic courtesies, there is a debate and a book on how to approach every other topic.
But teaching gender equality (read pink and blue) doesn’t require a debate. There are no “girl things” and “boy things” for little children. Period. The colour pink, which has come to represent “girl things” like playing a princess, and the colour blue, which represents “boy things” like playing superheroes, are creating a further divide in the patriarchal power imbalance between a man and a woman. Thanks to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor for stopping by Sesame Street to teach that being a princess is not really a job.
This divide is so deeply embedded in our products that it is a constant battle to educate kids about its emptiness. There is no pink or blue. They are simply colours of the same spectrum. And we need to allow our kids to pick a colour of their own liking.
I encourage both my children to pick their own. When my daughter Mehar was born in the summer of 2007, my husband and I decided to get her a healthy mix of age-appropriate toys, not “gender-appropriate”. For me, that term is a misnomer. Over the years, Mehar has gotten a mix of toy babies, princesses, building blocks, balls, stuffed animals, and, yes, cars. My husband ignored my instructions to buy small, soft play cars. Once he came back with a gigantic remote-controlled play truck for then-two-year-old Mehar. She delighted in taking her stuffed animals for a ride.
Mehar is now five-and-a-half and attends full-day kindergarten. She is a lovely, spirited child. She rarely walks in the house: always on her toes, she runs from room to room. She is always singing in joy, calling out to Daddy or me or to her little brother in a loud voice even for a simple conversation. As a friend remarked once, “She is a party in a box.” My evenings are spent asking her not to use a loud voice indoors, to save it, God forbid, for a situation that might be dangerous (and explaining what dangerous means).
She loves to create stuff. Her study nook is always piled high with paper crafts and discarded shreds of paper, and the tiny white table is shiny with glitter and glue projects. She loves to draw: her day at school, the movie she watched, daily conversations—everything finds an expression through her sketches.
She watches fairy tale movies but has a penchant for cartoon action flicks. One moment, she'll be "riding" around as a knight on her rocking horse—a play bucket for a helmet, a paper towel roll for a sword, a sheet wrapped around for armour—and the next hour, she'll be wearing her toy princess crown, with the "armour" transformed into a dress. One Halloween, she dressed as a princess, and for the last one, she was Bat Girl.
I love her imagination, her creativity, her carefree state of mind, the joy of just being herself and enjoying and savouring every moment. I admit, it gets a little challenging to steer her in regular life after some time, but I love the fact that she has so much zest for life.
And I admire her soft, nurturing side: she loves to fuss over her baby brother and is thrilled to have visitors with little ones.
Her little brother Kabir was born the day she turned three. Despite sharing their birth date, they are temperamentally different. Like all kids, they give us challenges in parenting, but we weren’t prepared for challenges Kabir threw at us.
His sharp mind works in overdrive. Mehar rarely gets into mischief, but Kabir is always creating mischief. We did what we never did with our daughter: installed three childproof security gates in the house. One gate cordons off the laundry area, one guards my study, and a five-metre wooden gate has been bolted into the walls to guard him from the gas fireplace and our big television (further protected from the impact of toy projectiles with a solid plastic sheet).
With Mehar, simply telling her that the fireplace was hot and dangerous with elaborate, scared facial expressions worked. Kabir just gave us a smirk. We thought the wooden gate would help. He soon defeated us. He grabbed his toy doctor box, put it upside-down, climbed on it, and voilà, he was swinging over the security gate. I had to hide the box. He was all of 23 months then.
He has used “tools” from his toy collection to open turn-and-twist door locks and has perched his chair on top of a regular chair to try and open the security latch on the main door. And he did all of this when he had only just turned two. Light on his feet, one doesn’t realize when he disappears quietly. One moment he is playing next to you and the next, he is trying to loosen the grip of the security gates.
So after three security gates and endless childproof locks throughout the house, we keep an eye on him—constantly. As the main stay-at-home parent, it’s a challenge for me to leave him unattended even for a bathroom break. My dear daughter steps in for that purpose. She has instructions to yell if he manages to get into mischief before I can make it back.
But I love him just the way I love my daughter. I melt when he replies, “Me, too” to my “I love you” and giggles uncontrollably when I grab him away from pulling stuff off the shelves. I love the way he makes my disappointment evaporate when he runs around laughing saying, “No, Mumma,” when I try to stop him from taking shots at side lamps with his toy trucks. It’s hard for me not to lose my temper when he uses the strength of his arms to launch his toy rocket ship into the air that eventually misfires and drives holes into walls, but his innocent and loving hugs after time-out make me forget the perforated walls in the house.
My friends say, “Oh, he is just being a boy”; I reject that. That is drilling gender differences into the impressionable minds of our children. And what exactly does “being a boy” mean? Climbing walls? Opening latches? Having a spirit of adventure? How is this experience tied to one’s sexual organs?
Kabir loves books, cars, and babies. He is enthusiastic about life and loves to experiment. His mischief is actually a sharp mind that can analyze situations and find a way out of them. He is not aggressive or violent; he doesn’t hit anyone. He has a strong frame for his age (he is now two-and-a-half) and doesn’t realize his strength inadvertently causes damage when all he is trying to do is “launch” a rocket ship.
The only toy he takes to bed with him is his favourite yellow and green truck. It is not the most comfortable toy to sleep with, but he doesn’t relent. I simply remove it after he sleeps.
Despite causing mischief and vrooming his toy cars all day long, he has a soft side to him, that of a nurturer. Of all the toys scattered on the living room floor, there is only one kind he doesn’t throw or use as a projectile: babies. I am amazed at how gentle he is with them. He caresses a toy baby as if it were real, feeds it with his own sipper, wraps it in a sheet and puts it to bed—in his own bunk.
I recognize his potential and I love his nurturing side. Classifying what he does with a toy baby as a “mommy thing” is a dangerous proposition. By doing so, I will tell my son that it is wrong and unacceptable for a man to be the nurturer and at the same time, I will tell my daughter that a woman’s identity is limited to being the nurturer.
That will discourage her spirited attitude, especially outdoors, where she climbs trees and picks flowers. Not a single day goes by when she doesn’t come home with muddy clothes. She loves to venture outdoors, and every school recess she is collecting rocks and leaves with her knees in the wet grass or mud. Her backpack is always teeming with the dirty, heavy collection, and it is not unusual to find a rock or two in her pants pockets.
“She is such a tomboy,” one of my friends said and I politely disagreed. Years ago, when people referred to me as one, I took pride in the term. I thought it was cool to do “boy things”. As a thinking adult, I recognized that being adventurous and spirited is not a “boy thing”. We all have different passions and ways of life. There are no “boy things” or “girl things” for little children. Society classifies our behaviour in constructed gender roles and today, as a mother of two young children, I strongly reject this socially constructed ill concept. It only undermines our children’s true potential. It makes our girls feel limited to the role of nurturers and stifles our boys’ natural role as nurturers.
We socially program our boys to feel ashamed of playing with dolls and babies, and then we complain when, as adults, most reject their roles as loving fathers.
When we provide a gender-free environment for our kids, they themselves reject the predominant gender stereotypes. It happened with me while watching the 3-D version of The Lion King in a movie theatre with Mehar. Her gaze fixed on the screen, munching popcorn, she innocently inquired in her usual loud voice, “Mom, when will I be the king?”
People sitting in the row ahead broke into giggles and I hugged her and said, “Anytime love, anytime. You have the potential to scale any height.” I was proud she had identified with a role that had power attached to it and not with a usual submissive side-role assigned to a woman.
At the same time, I don’t want her to reject her future role of a mother or my son to reject his ambitious, adventurous side and focus only on his nurturing side. I want them both to live a balanced life, where being a nurturer comes naturally, just the way nature intended. And what they do with their lives professionally will be best done when it stems from their spirited self within.