Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Raising Girls to be Scientific Citizens

The USA is a funny country. It has never had a female president, and is apparently still not ready for one. Children are routinely asked if they want to be a fireman (boys) or a princess (girls). If you buy a train set for a girl, people look at you askance, accusing you through their stares of wanting to raise your daughter to be a lesbian (I kid you not). Very few people seem to mind that subtle messages are being conveyed to girls all the time via the media, via their toys, and the people around them. These were things that were in the news from time to time, still are, but were pretty remote, and mostly debating points, until Daughter1 was born.

When Daughter1 was born, I had not given much thought to how I would raise a daughter (or a son) ... I had vague ideas of raising my child "scientifically," and looking back, I can see that I had no real Definition of what that might mean. I had, and still have, lofty ideals, such as ensuring that my kids know medical quackery because that can kill them - homeopathy really gets my goat, for example. But three-year-olds are Not usually interested in learning about randomized double-blind placebo-controlled drug trials, and Daughter1 is no exception. I have
managed, however, to teach her to say "semiconductor" and "lugubrious" - "Papa makes semiconductor chips," and "I feel lugubrious today," so that puts me right up there in the league of parents who impose their unachieved dreams on their kids. (I dreamt of being able to say complex words when I was three.)

I did resolve to not impose the stereotypical doctor/engineer career decision on her, which felt like it occurred to my generation in India almost from the day we were born. I had not counted on her fascination for all things medical, and for a nurse in hospital to ask her, when she was about to be 3 years old, if she wanted to become a nurse or a doctor. Daughter1 was hooked - she hadn't realized till then that she could be this Authority figure when she grows up, and resolved that she wanted to be a doctor. Then she saw Toy Story 2, and wanted to be a cowgirl-doctor (actually doctor-ballerina-cowgirl, but I don't think she knew what a ballerina was). In the past week, however, she has decided she wants to be a cashier in her own grocery store, and has promised me free eggs (but not all groceries - for those I will have to pay).

The nurse was an exception - most people ask if she wants to be a princess. For example, when I took Daughter1 to the grocery store, the cashier asked her if she wanted to be a princess. Daughter1 replied that she wanted to be a cowgirl ... I wonder how long that lack of desire to be a princess will last. She already wants to get her ears pierced. Most girls seem to have their Ears pierced when they're a few months old - that's just wrong. Fortunately, Her pediatrician is on my side.

I don't know how long I will be able to protect her from the world of Barbie. At a birthday party for a colleague's daughter (where the father is of similar views), the father confided that he was dismayed at one of the gifts - a princess shoe set, with a set of nine shoes emblazoned with the faces of Disney princesses. A Barbie doll with accessories would have been the ultimate nightmare - how do you explain to a kid who is enamored by shiny choke-hazard plastic accessories and a doll famous for spouting "Math is hard," that you're afraid of the impact it will have on her future ability to soar in her career, that you feel it's inappropriate for her to end up thinking it's okay to be a mindless princess waiting for Prince Charming to come along and carry her off without a proper period of courtship, background checks (for criminal behavior), blood tests, and possibly a dental exam for gingivitis?

How big a problem is the media in all this? Huge, but can't blame anyone too long. The media is successful because that's what people pay for. If people really wanted less stereotyping, why would Disney feel compelled to have Quasimodo turn into a handsome prince at the end of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (Disney-ishtyle)? Is it so bad that the gel in "The Hunchback" liked a fella who was out of the standard distribution. Heck, the whole Cinderella and the Prince-with-foot-fetish story is way older than Disney, though Disney has certainly perpetuated the problem. (Yes, I realize that Disney distributed Toy Story 2, which has a strong female character that led Daughter1 to decide to be a cowgirl. I'm talking gross generalities here.)

Public television is a welcome respite to this, though not without exception. The one exception I know of is the title song in "Maya and Miguel," which is a cartoon about a set of twins, where there is a line That goes, "he leads with his head, and she follows her heart." Why does the sister not use her brains? On the other hand, there's "Arthur," who's mum has a career, who's friend Francine is a soccer-playing bully, and where Muffy is a shopping-addicted object of ridicule. PBS also has "Ruff with Ruff Ruffman," where the girls routinely show that they're as good as
the boys (as they did on "Zoom" before it was cancelled), and Wendy is a perfectly capable builder on "Bob the Builder".

So, now that it's wrap-up time, what am I going to do?
1. Avoid Barbie,
2. Avoid Disney Princesses,
3. If she must watch TV, let her watch Toy Story 2 and PBS cartoons,
but not Maya and Miguel if I can help it,
4. Teach her about exercise,
5. Convince her to always use a seatbelt,
6. Teach her about sensible shoes when she sees women in stiletto
heels, though that will hopefully be a long time away,
7. See what I can do about green leafy vegetables in her diet,
8. Get her started on learning about epidemiological testing and
randomized double-blind placebo-controlled drug trials.

And since she wanted to be a doctor, I've already bought her a toy
stethoscope. The cashier thing is new, I don't know what toys to get
her for that.



Entropy said...

Have done the hard worked and checked earlier posts for something Rohit had writen earlier on the same theme. Here's the link - http://entropymuse.blogspot.com/2006/01/fairy-tale-phobia.html


Anonymous said...




Rohini said...

Nice post. But don't go overboard with this. I know a mom who never bought a doll for her daughter for the same 'not-propogating-gender-stereotypes' reasons but she came to realise that her daughter was craving one and was seriously jealous of friends who had one. She would go to her friends'/ cousins' houses and head straight for the dolls. Her mom finally gave in and bought her one. I would say go with the flow...

Entropy said...

Really nice stuff. Think I should write something similar on growing up prejudices in India . Btw, what a weird thing to ask a girl if she would like to be a princess. Atleast a fireman is a real job.

Anita B.

Speck 42 said...

In re. Rohini's comment: Yes, Rhea does have dolls, not stopping those. Just that I dislike the Barbie-and-accessory-boyfriend-neither-of-whom-know-Math thing.

Nitin said...


I started out with similar thoughts...avoid pink, avoid Barbies, avoid Disney princesses etc.

But there are more fundamental forces out there. My little girl loves pink, loves Barbies (can't have enough of them) and wanted a Disney princess cake for her birthday...I know when I'm beaten.

This does not mean that we can't raise them to be scientific, rational and intelligent individuals. We can. Dads, however, must realise that they have daughters.

ggop said...

Its the Bratz dolls which weird me out. Do girls love them too?

Anonymous said...

Nice article.

Reminds me of my mom's attitude: she always insisted that I choose math at every stage (it helped that she is an economist). Even when doing the "arts" course and there was only one college in Bombay offering it for arts students . Her point was that mathematics was always going to be useful at any point so I might as well learn it. I'm glad she insisted on it. I can't say that I love the subject but I certainly understand its importance.

And I totally second the ban on Barbies. I try and get my nieces the doctor/vet Barbies if they cry for a Barbie - consoling myself that at least the Barbie has a career but mostly I hate them all. And I'm not entirely convinced by commenters who say that girl kids just instinctively "love" Barbie. I think they just pick up on the social attitudes which signal that its desirable for a girlchild to like dolls. It would be interesting to have everyone in their social environment say they hate Barbie and see how the little girl reacts to that - will she choose a barbie against all the social conditioning?I would think not.

Speck 42 said...

In re. Nitin's comment: I know I'm beat. My wife got her pink princess shoes recently. Kid loves them. I've pretty much given up on the whole thing. Girls and pink fluffy things seem to be a matter of evolution.

Entropy said...

This is in reaction to the comment about girls and pink fluffy things. Gasp ! Choke ! Splutter ! I think the emphasis on pink is something that is dinned into you – literally from the day you are born – who dresses a baby girl in blue ? and how often ?
Also, it’s not so much the ‘pink’ that girls love, it’s the frills and soft fluffy stuff. Think many girls love other colours equally.

As for Barbie, I hated them when I was a kid. Was neutral to most dolls, liked one or two, hated Barbie. Dunno why.

By the way, my Dad bought me dolls. But he also read me tons of stories and taught me lots of games and taught me how to fight and took me on treks. Barbie and house-house seem just so boring in comparison with ‘Treasure Island’,‘Captains Courageous’ and ‘War of the Worlds’, I’d rather imagine myself a character in one of those than as Barbie.

Relax about your daughters. As long as you let them know what all interesting things are possible, they will make the right choices, whatever those may be.

(and no nasty quips about how I learnt to use a comp)


Speck 42 said...

In re. Zen's comment:
Did your brother need someone to show him how to use a mouse? No. You were yet another sad and oppressed girl-child, a product of our society that values the male child above the female. Come the revolution, the blood of the elite will flow in the streets, and we will all shed our last names and the caste baggage that accompanies it! Everyone will have access to a course in good formatting, spelling, and grammar, with or without a mouse (unless they live near garbage, in which case mice every which way)! Children will learn to recite their twice times tables when they're three, and the blood of Barbie dolls will not flow in the streets, because they're dolls, and don't have any.