Does anyone remember the iconic children's album and illustrated book from the 1972 called Free To Be... You and Me? While I don't remember this "Top 100 Albums of All Time" work, published when I was 6 years old, I know that the phrase "Free To Be" has resonated through my being for as long as I can remember. This work by Marlo Thomas and several of her friends tells ALL children that they can be whomever and whatever they can be. Here we are, 48 years later, still working on this same message.
It seems that our country has a habit of moving forward, experiencing growing pains, retracting into old habits, and then moving forward a bit more. If you look back through history, it seems that each generation goes through its own expansion and contraction as we slowly try to become better people and a better country. It often feels as if for every one person working toward growth, there are ten fighting to hold the status quo.
When reading my moms groups online, there are daily questions about toys, accessories, and activities. Often those questions are related to gender. There are questions about "boys toys," "girls toys," "boys games," "girls games," and the list goes on and on. Fifty years hasn't been enough time to grow beyond the millennia-old perception that gender should be assigned to inanimate objects and to activities. You would have thought Joan of Arc, Michelangelo, Queen Boadicea, Rosie the Riveter, Rosey Grier (Needlepoint for Men), Mike Rivera (crocheting Miami Dolphin), a generation of male nurses and female truck drivers would all have brought us further.
20 years ago, I had a stepson who was shocked by my love of power tools. We now see many efforts to help girls know they can do anything, pushing them to be able to care for their future homes and families in all ways, including using power tools. But that push isn't there for many of our boys. There are still too many people who fear that playing with "girl toys" will somehow influence boys' preferences and gender identity.
Our society has a sad history of not allowing people to be who they truly are. Being different than the societal norm brings censure to parents as well as children. We have had generations of people who have hidden who they truly are. These days we have young people who are much more open about their passions, their personalities, and their identities than we have seen in previous generations. But they still struggle.
Parents always worry about what struggles their children may have in life. Let's face it. Some things about life absolutely suck. As a coworker often says, "Life gets life-y." When children seem to have tendencies outside what the parents expect, the parents may worry that this will increase the difficulties life will throw at their children. Sometimes those differences lead to the children not identifying with their birth-assigned gender. Sometimes those differences are "gender non-conforming" - behaviors that lie outside gender-stereotyped expectations while the person continues to identify with their birth-assigned gender (women who love power tools and drive semis; men who choose to be stay-at-home dads and do needlepoint; etc).
Instead of pushing the stereotypes onto our children, perhaps we should be more accepting of their differences. Let's find ways to encourage our children's interests, strengths, and desires. Let's help them accept and appreciate themselves. Let's encourage our children to lift up others rather than tear them down for being different.
Let's give our daughters power tools and toy trucks if they want them.
Let's give our sons dolls and cooking sets.
Let's be the changes we need in the world for our children by creating those changes within ourselves.