Sunday, 7 November 2010

Anti-sexist childrearing

During the 1980s, I ran toy libraries and playgroups in the London Borough of Hackney. Although we made every effort to create anti-sexist and gay-friendly spaces, it was all pretty much of a flop. We leant out various books in addition to toys, including the notorious Jenny lives with Eric and Martin. Which meant of course that we were, indirectly, the sort of people who precipitated Section 28! Every effort was made to encourage the boys to play with the buggies and dolls and to get the girls to play with the toy cars. It's true that the boys liked the brooms and buggies, but this was only because the brooms could be held like miniature rifles and they could chuck the babies out of the buggies and then race round the room with them pretending that they were motor cycles. We had realistic little people of various ethnic mixes which could sit in the toy cars. The moment that I realised that we were wasting our time was when a group of little girls were, under our urging, reluctantly playing with the toy cars instead of the dolls. We had removed most of the male figures so that the cars and people they were playing with were an almost exclusively female society. How cool was that for the girls? One girl got upset though. She had a car and a group of female figures but thought it was unfair because she didn't have a driver for her car. When I looked, I found that all the male figures had been co-opted as drivers and that all the cars had men driving them. It was so clearly the natural order of things for these girl-children from a multi-cultural, inner London borough.

The problem was of course society and the families in which the children were being raised. We could not hope to have any sort of impact in an hour or so each week. When my own children were born, I decided that the only solution was not simply to avoid sexism, but aggressively to challenge it in our home. Many of our friends tried to adopt a neutral attitude to sexism and homophobia, hoping that the fact that they were not displaying any overt signs of either sexism, racism or homophobia would be enough to counter the prejudices to which their children might be exposed at school. This invariably failed; the pressures of society need more than this passive resistance to be overcome.

My wife and I structured our lives so that the children would not have traditional roles reinforced. I do not drive, so that was OK; they grew up thinking that driving was something which a woman usually did. We decided that washing up and doing the laundry should be my part of the housework and anything which looked physical or dirty should be my wife's. Of course, once the kids were in bed, we eased up a bit on this. Books like Heather has two Mommies became favourites for the children as bedtime reading. Dolls were ethnically balanced and anatomically realistic. Some were disabled. I acquired from an American supplier a wheelchair for teddies, as well as little leg callipers and white sticks. Action man and Barbie rubbed shoulders in the toy box and it was not uncommon to see action man tricked out like a Drag Queen and Barbie carrying an assault rifle. A lot of what we did during the children's early years sounds like a caricature of left wing practice. We did not have soldiers with our boiled eggs; we had suffragettes! No mention of firemen, it was always fire-fighters.

Home educating my younger daughter meant that this sort of lifestyle was not countered by any sort of foolish influence at school from other children. I have to say, the whole thing has been pretty much of a success. More so with the girl who did not go to school than with her sister, of course, but that is only to be expected. I never indoctrinated either of the girls with this ridiculous middle class ethos about not hitting back. I think that the most dangerous nonsense to teach girls. Both grew up to be pretty handy with their fists and even today it would be a brave lad who tried to take liberties with either of them. Simone is a keen fencer, not only with epee but also the sabre. I can assure readers that I would not like to face her when she has a sabre in her hand. All the stuff that we did has given them both the firm idea that there is nothing at all that men can do better than women. And of course, vice versa. The idea that women should be better at nursing a baby or cleaning a floor is utterly alien to them.

Perhaps the best thing that this sort of childhood has given the girls is the air that they carry with them, an air of 'Don't mess with me or you will live to regret it'. They walk in what some have described as a masculine way, striding along confidently, obviously ready for whatever comes at them. Groups of local youths who tease passing girls with sexist remarks or throw snowballs at them in winter always gave my daughters a wide birth. This is also good because it means that they do not present as suitable targets for rapists or muggers. One look at them tells anybody that you are apt to bite off more than you can chew if you tangle with them.

It is not enough when raising children to take a neutral stance upon prejudice of any kind. Prejudices must be tackled head on, not just as they arise from time to time but in a pro-active way as part of a lifestyle. It is simply not enough to talk like a liberal when the subject of sexism comes up or to avoid using derogatory terms about minorities. Home education gives one an ideal opportunity to do this, freeing a child from the negative influences of schools and children who might already be infected with the very prejudices which we are attempting to eradicate in our children.


  1. That's an interesting post for me Simon, as the mother of two sons. I recently blogged about how appalled I was at a toy catalogue's two pages of pink "girly" science things (making perfume etc) as opposed to 22 pages of boy-related fun, while the creative section had no pictures of boys at all.
    I also am trying to combat sexism, and as my son is not currently at nursery I am able to paint his nails for example (at his request) without him getting stick from other children.
    I did have a bit of a dilemma though, oldest boy aged three is a bit fighty right now, as three year olds often are, and is not discriminatory in whose hair he pulls or who he knocks over. When he knocked a little girl over I was wondering whether to tell him it was particularly bad to hit girls. Still not sure on that one.

  2. 'When he knocked a little girl over I was wondering whether to tell him it was particularly bad to hit girls.'

    That's a very tricky one! When my daughter was little, she used to scrap with boys on equal terms. Sometimes she knocked over the boy and other times got knocked over herself. I certainly did not have any grudge when it was her who was knocked down. On the other hand, there is a culture of male violence against women and I suppose if I had a boy, I might have felt uneasy if he hit a girl. You probably start to imagine that when he grows up he'll be knocking his wife about or something if he gets into this habit when young! I would be curious to know what other people think about this.

  3. Fascinating point; as a culture we do seem to find female on male violence is a source for comedy but male on female violence as unacceptable. I think the unacceptable aspect comes in when it's a powerful person being violent to a weaker person, this just happens to be the way we percieve male/female relationships.

    This may just be an anecdotal anomoly but my daughter (8) goes to cubs, there are lots of boys and only 4 girls in her section. My daughter is the only girl they'll hit, kick, tease etc... the other girls they treat with a kind of fearful reverence. When she first started going her leader stopped me one day when I was picking her up to say that she was pleased to see a girl who gave as good as she got. It seems the boys have accepted my daughter as an equal and now treat her with the same relaxed, careless attitude that the have with each other, but they look upon the other girls as if they are frightened they may break them.
    I think if you tell them not to pick on anyone they think is weaker than themselves then that sidesteps the sexist issue.

    As a side point my daughter wants to be a scientist when she grows up. At cubs they did a science badge and my daughter stood up proudly and said this is what she wanted to do when she was a grown up. All the boys laughed and said girls can't be scientists. She came home upset and asked if it was true and why was she different from everyone else. I told her that of course it wasn't true and that everyone was different, she was the only one brave enough to show it. The fact that all the boys thought it was a laughable idea and they weren't challenged by any of the many adults supervising them made my blood boil.

  4. 'as a culture we do seem to find female on male violence is a source for comedy '

    Yes, I have noticed lately in soap operas that it is quite acceptable for a woman to knee a man in the groin or punch him. This is happening increasingly and is supposed to me funny. One wonders at the reaction if we saw a man shown to be kneeing a woman and punching her!

    I am bound to say that if I were you I would ask the adults at Cubs what they thought they were playing at and why they did not challenge this sexism.