Sugar and spice and puppy dog tails - FamilyEducation

Sugar and spice and puppy dog tails

August 06,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Last week Scott and I took T. to a free movie as part of the Family Summer Movie Fest. It's a great deal--free movie and $1 popcorn and the chance to sit for a little over an hour in an air-conditioned theater. We took T. to see Everyone's Hero, about a little boy who loves baseball and gets the chance to be a real hero if he can return Babe Ruth's beloved bat to him. This week we took T. to see Peter Pan--not the Disney version, but the 2003 one. There was plenty of swashbuckling action and sword play, which T. sat through without too many worries, but there were also lots of emotional moments--Tinker Bell's brief death and resurrection, the parting between Peter and Wendy, and when I looked over at T. her little mouth was turned down at the corners, and tears were creeping down her cheeks. She was moved by the "tear-jerker" parts of the film just as I might have been, her heart stirred by the music and the scenery and the emotions of the moment.

I spent a good ten minutes or so marveling at T.'s sensitivity, her very feminine way of getting caught up in the emotional side of a story. My heart leaped out protectively to my daughter, whose own heart just couldn't contain the emotions she was feeling. "So very like a girl," I thought to myself, and being one myself, I meant it in the best, most tender of ways. But before I could get too carried away, the giant crocodile appeared on screen, just as Captain Hook dangled desperately above its head.

"Eat him!" T. shrieked suddenly in a most bloodthirsty way. "Eat Captain Hook!"

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Before I became a Mama, I used to scoff at the idea that there were real behavioral differences between girls and boys. I know our society does much to create the roles that our kids occupy--all you have to do is turn on the television to see this in action. And because I had never really experienced parenthood before, many of my own ideas about nature vs. nurture came from books and observations. Growing up, we were raised pretty uniformly--I don't think my parents ever really pushed particular "girl" things at me and my sister, or "boy" things at my brother. We just liked what we liked--and we played less with toys and more with our imaginations outside in the yard.

I try to carry that through to our own parenting. Not only that, but we have consciously tried to do things differently, to celebrate the interests L. had that weren't traditionally "boy" interests. When L. was three, he had his own doll baby, both because he wanted one and because we were expecting T., and wanted him to become familiar with the idea of a baby and its needs. He'd push his funny yard-sale cabbage patch baby around in a little blue gingham toy stroller. He loved trains, but also liked to do crafts. His first electric toothbrush was a Dora the Explorer one, and at four he helped me resurrect my beloved childhood Lundby dollhouse. I thoroughly enjoyed playing with L.'s toys--even the traditional "boy" toys of childhood, and I still love it when he brings out his Matchbox car collection and I get to help him sort them out. We let L. go with his interests, rather than try to channel them one way; we worried constantly about pushing L.'s activities into tightly constrained preconceptions about what a boy should or shouldn't like.

Then we had a daughter.

I vowed, when pregnant with T., that we would not succumb to buying girlie-girl things, or dressing her in pink too much, or--god forbid--ever buy her a Barbie. I must hasten to say that we have been just as open-minded with T. as we were with L. I am proud that my daughter is a girl who likes new clothes and dress-up, but also tree-climbing and dinosaurs (she wants a dinosaur backpack for preschool this year). She was passionate about Dora until Dora sold out and became Princess Dora; T. then discarded her promptly for her ever-exciting cousin, Diego. She is brave and ready for adventure, but capable of great drama, too, bursting into floods of tears that sometimes just won't stop. Despite my vow, I have to admit that I've derived some girlish joy of my own in buying my T. traditionally girlie things, after all: doll babies, a vanity set, and lots of things that are pink. I have to confess also that I have gently nudged traditional girl things in her direction, because I had forgotten, if truth be told, the girlie-girl side of me that laid dormant all those years. My daughter grew from a baby into a charming four-year-old who allows me now to brush and braid her hair, and paint her toenails when I do mine.

"Secret-secret," T. whispers to me at bedtime sometimes, and then leans close, to share some mystery she has conjured up in her head, and I feel like a school-kid again, at a slumber party with my best friend.

Just as I like being surprised by the yin-yang aspects of my two kids, I love having both a boy and a girl. I love being surprised by how they defy the gender stereotypes in their own ways while, at the same time, still remaining in essence who and what they are. I'm happy when T. makes me do a double-take, or when I watch L. hunched over some beautifully creative work he has made. I like being challenged to redefine the way I see the world. I love my son's boyish pursuits, and my daughter's girlish ones, and the ones that fall in-between. They catch me by surprise sometimes, like something seen out of the corner of my eye--something amazing and always changing.