I was about to leave my babysitting job, and I went into the playroom to say goodbye to the boys. I had already seen the two girls in the kitchen and given them hugs, saying I would see them soon.
I went over to the two boys, ten and six years old, playing Legos.
“Bye guys! See you tomorrow. High-fives!”
I paused for a moment-- here was an opportunity to practice my resolution not to treat boys and girls I babysat differently. I hugged the girls goodbye, why not the boys?
“Hugs are also acceptable!” I added, trying to show that being more emotionally expressive wasn’t just a “girl” thing.
The ten-year-old proceeded to wrap his arms tight around my legs, causing me to tumble to the floor and land hard.
As I drove home, I laughed to myself over the results of the experiment.
Taking hits for feminism like a champ, I thought.
I’ve been babysitting ever since I was a “mother’s helper” (the babysitting version of an unpaid intern) at twelve and thirteen years old. Since then, I’ve babysat for families with all girls, all boys, a mix; as well as families with two breadwinners, and families where the mom stays at home and the dad works (interestingly, never the other way around yet).
As a babysitter, I’m never sure of my place when I see kids exhibiting signs of internalized gender norms. Gender norms in themselves need not be harmful, except when kids think there is an impassable line between the two genders that cannot and should not be crossed. According to a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, kids around the world believe gender stereotypes by the age of 10.
To say the least, it’s distressing to see these changes taking place, as kids become aware of these prescribed boundaries and fearful of violating them. For example, I once knew of a little boy who LOVED Frozen. Sang the songs, adored the characters, rewatched the film constantly. Then one day, his mom told me, he talked about it at school, and a group of boys said, “That’s a girl movie!” Coming home after that, he lost all interest in his once-beloved story.
It’s things like that that make me wary of staying silent when I see boys and girls clinging to their prescribed gender norms-- especially boys. In my view, it’s become more encouraged for girls to adopt and explore traditionally masculine traits and activities. Try that STEM class! Be a warrior, not a princess! You can do it!
But I have yet to see acceptance, much less encouragement, in the other direction. When is the last time you saw boys being encouraged to try traditionally feminine activities?
We know that boys are not apt to try “girl things” due to internalized misogyny they see around them, a perception that femininity is embarrassing and inferior to masculinity. It should not be a big deal if a boy likes princesses or fashion-- but boys learn early on that these are “girl things” and thus off-limits. We should be encouraging kids’ creativity, not stifling it by limiting what they can explore.
Hence the argument that by pushing for gender equality, feminism actually does aim to improve the lives of and expand options for boys and girls alike.
So when reading books to the children about families on ski vacations, I pause when I come to a line like, “On vacations, Mom doesn’t have to worry about the dishes or the laundry!” (I’m not going to lie, I usually take advantage of the fact that they can’t read and say, “On vacations, no one has to worry about the dishes or the laundry!”)
At the same time, I have seen signs of progress. Legos have become a more gender-neutral toy, neither masculine nor feminine, with kids able to be creative with a toy and play with it together. Books like Rosie Revere, Engineer showcase girls in traditionally masculine pursuits, but appeal to both boys and girls. Not only do these changes alleviate pressures put on girls, but they show boys that gender is pliable and norms do not have to dictate their lives either.
What I hope to see as a babysitter in the coming years is a shift in how we encourage boys to try things beyond their prescribed gender norms. Not only would we be expanding the options for boys, we would be showing both boys and girls that neither femininity nor masculinity is superior or inferior to the other.