Raising boys, raising girls

I saved this as a draft post over a week ago and have been mulling it over since. The issue of the differences between boys and girls is an ongoing one and much can (and has been) said on probably every aspect that you could think of. With that in mind, this is probably just another drop in the ocean, someone else’s two cents. But, it has been playing on my mind recently so even if it’s only useful for me to feel it out, I’ll humbly offer my thoughts to add to the myriad that is already out there.

Before I had children, I was staunchly of the belief that the way children were was a direct result of their surroundings, what they were exposed to and their parents expectations of them. Four years and one of each later, I’m not so sure. I think that most definitely, the pinkification of girls and culture of separation when it comes to toys is completely limiting and unhelpful. But. Men and women have a different chemical makeup, there are different hormones surging around inside us. I think it is foolish to completely ignore that.

Like most babies, Sophia didn’t show any interest in toys until 9-12 months. Previously to that she was just happy to explore whatever was around her, to interact with people and to try and move. Once she had mastered that and her attention span slowly started to grow, she turned to toys. We bought a selection of toys; instruments, wooden stacking and sorting toys, craft materials, dolls, cars. I was a bit of a control freak about what we gave her. This was partly due to the lack of space on the boat, if something was going to be taking up precious room I wanted it to be an open ended, well made toy that had durability.

She played with most of them to varying degrees of success but as the months went on I couldn’t help but notice that she naturally seemed to gravitate to what would be seen as more ‘girly’ activities; baking, playing with dolls, drawing. We didn’t have television and she didn’t go to nursery or playgroups where there would have been an outside pressure to choose those toys so I assumed it was a natural inclination but not particularly indicative of her gender.

But then came Isaac. Like his sister, he showed no interest in toys for his first year.  His only interest, his mission in life, was to move. He was crawling at 6 months, surfing sofas by 7 and took his first steps at 10 and a half months. After he turned one he still didn’t show much interest. He liked to climb, to empty things, to eat. But then, at 18 months, it was like a switch in his brain. And suddenly it was all about wheels. Seemingly overnight he developed an obsession with all modes of transportation but mainly wheel based and especially tractors. He also entered what I call destructor mode. If there is a container, it needs to be emptied. If there is a ball, it must be thrown. If he finds a pen, he will draw on something that is most definitely not paper. He also loves to sort, to move things from one container to another.

If I were to stop there you could draw your own conclusions. Isaac is a male, full of testosterone, and therefore loves ‘boy’ things. Sophia is a nurturing female and therefore loves ‘girl’ activities. But I refuse to do so. Because Sophia also loves to run riot outdoors, to dig up the garden, would choose to dress up as a dog or chef over a princess, to dance like a lunatic and hurl herself around. And Isaac is starting to join us in the kitchen, will have books read to him for hours if your voice can stand it, worries about children if he hears them crying, draws pictures at the table with Sophia (when he’s not chucking the pens everywhere) and won’t go to sleep without his baby and bear.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s not so black and white, or blue and pink if you will. There are differences between boys and girls and at times it is most definitely very important to remember these in our parenting, but these hormonal differences do not define our children. There are a million other shades between. A veritable rainbow of personalities to be found within the children around us.

But what worries me is how ingrained our attitudes towards children are. From the father at a Church I used to go to who was dismayed when his young son wanted to be a pink butterfly at the face painting stand I was running to my friend’s daughter who has recently started school and was told twice in a week by classmates that she had a boys lunch box and questioned over her choice. Kinder Eggs have recently introduced pink and blue packaging, pull up training pants come in a choice of blue motorbikes or pink princesses and even at the Christian music festival we went to this summer, I spotted a girls and boys Bible – identical but for the colours. We don’t have television and I am so glad at the moment that we are not being bombarded with the heavily pink vs blue adverts that overwhelm ad breaks in the run up to Christmas.

But the good news is that there are a lot of people angry about this, fighting for change. Pinkstinks is a long running campaign that (to quote their blurb)  ‘targets the products, media and marketing that prescribe heavily stereotyped and limiting roles to young girls. We believe that all children – girls and boys – are affected by the ‘pinkification’ of girlhood. Our aim is to challenge and reverse this growing trend.’ Go and check out their website to see some of their ongoing campaigns and some of their successes. Harrods and Toys R Us are two retailers that have recently picked up on this dissatisfaction and have been dissolving their pink/blue divide and just tonight I saw an ad for a company called GoldieBlox who are on a mission to inspire the next generation of female engineers. The tide is turning, but slowly.

So what can we do?

We can not assume that every young girl’s favourite colour is pink and that she is into princesses and dolls, we can not comment on her looks. I remember reading an amazing article, quite a long time ago which you can find here. Because the author is so right, sometimes without thinking the first thing I want to say to daughters of friends is a comment on their appearance, sometimes the urge to praise them for their clothes or the way they look is strong. And this is madness. A child’s worth shouldn’t be in how they look but should be found in what makes them feel good, in what excites and captivates them.

So let’s dig deeper. Let’s get to know the girls, to shed the pink and to give them more respect than that. But also, let’s not assume that all boys are rough and tumble hardy things that like trucks and trains and fighting. Let’s not say ‘boys will be boys’.

Let us get to know each child individually and stop making assumptions, find out whether they like music, reading, making, moving, see if their favourite colour is red, gold, green or yellow. Let’s find out who our children really are.


strong communities

Yesterday saw the kids, Aunty Julia and myself (unfortunately Dan was poorly) at their first ever protest. The English Defence League were marching in Exeter and in response a group called Exeter Together was formed and organised a counter demonstration to celebrate diversity and respect in Exeter and to send a clear message to the EDL that they are not welcome here.

I’m happy to admit that I was a bit nervous on the morning of the march, although I’ve been to demonstrations before I’ve never been to an anti EDL one and given their violent tendencies I was a bit worried about having the kids in tow. However the organisers had assured us it was more a celebration of all that is good in Exeter, that it was family friendly and that the two groups wouldn’t even meet. They were right, there was no need to worry. And what an amazing day.

Hundreds of people (estimates range from 700 to over 1000) turned up to walk in a peaceful and joyful march before gathering in the city centre for a time of music, poetry and speakers.

What I absolutely loved seeing was the diverse range of groups and people who were represented and who turned up, from punks with their foot high brightly coloured mohawks, old hippies swathed in wool and multicoloured fabrics, the trade unions, teachers union, folk from the Centre for Islamic Studies, pastors from local churches to just general members of the public who felt strongly enough about the EDL coming to Exeter that they gave up their free time on a saturday morning to join in.

Strong communities. This is what it’s about. My last post was concerned with how to make a difference, how to help. I believe the starting point is in having and participating in strong communities. 50, 100 years ago you could take having a supportive community for granted, whole families lived in the same town or village, everyone knew each other and was willing to help those who needed it. Now families are fragmented around the country, sometimes the world. You often move to follow the work. To find a good school. To get a cheaper house. We can’t guarantee knowing people in our local communities. I believe there is an increase in our poor health (mental and physical) because we don’t have those networks of support that we used to have.

But since moving to Devon I’ve felt part of a community. Perhaps it is because I’ve lived in a big city for the last 10+ years but living in a small town has been incredible. We can’t walk down to the shops without bumping into at least one person we know. When our car battery was flat and we needed to move it the local shop directed me to a nearby house where a lovely gentleman came and gave me a jump start. I later found out he was the mayor. That day sticks with me. I interrupted him and his wife whilst they were having breakfast with a toddler on my hip and a child bouncing around to say someone said he might help. He dropped everything and came round immediately.  Some friends from the pub where I work let me and the kids pick copious amounts of apples from their property because they knew I wanted to make preserves but our apple tree had failed. We were asked to put together a musical act for Carnival week, even though we’d been here less than 6 months.  And I know if you asked me in a few months I could give you even more examples of such a kind and friendly community.

Yesterday made me realise that it doesn’t matter if you know everybody in it, or even sometimes like them all(!) but being part of a strong community is essential. Through it you can find out where help is needed, where there are opportunities for you to get involved in something that you are passionate about, that is worthwhile. There are people who care, people who are willing to do things, to try and effect change. You just need to find them, to join with them, to be part of it.

I was talking to my friend just after my last post and he was talking about volunteering at the local food bank and just like that, I knew that was something I wanted to do with the kids. I know I will have to wait until they are old enough to be properly useful (or at least not counter productive!) but I want to get involved in that front line service. He has inspired me to pull my finger out and start asking the questions.

Similarly, our home education group was dwindling without somewhere to meet and now I feel really passionate about being part of that. We are looking for a venue where we can meet weekly now, where we can welcome in other parents who are considering home education or already doing it, to be able to do activities with the kids, to create another community.

Never have I experienced community like this, there are layers of different groups and they all seem to overlap; folk we know from  Topsham, the home education network, people from our Church, from being a parent, even at work as the pub where I work has become like family (albeit eccentric!) to me. Now don’t get me wrong, we had some very very special friends in Brighton and I still miss them daily. But our ‘community’ started and ended with them. Maybe we didn’t try hard enough but it was hard to be part of a community in a big city (although I guess we were part of the liveaboard community in the marina). It was hard to connect in the same way, there was an attitude of ‘but what difference will we make?’ or ‘but someone’s already doing that’. But if we ever do live in a city again I know I will make an effort to get more involved. Now I know how important it is to be part of what surrounds you.

So the answer, not 42, but, strong communities.

I don’t have any answers, just a bloody aching head

I’ve been listening to ‘On the Use of Jack Boots’ by Al Baker (which is where I got my title from-borrowed a lyric) while blitz cleaning the house as Isaac sleeps and Sophia is at Pebble House today and it’s got me thinking (uh oh!) There’s a bit in one of the Harry Potter books where Dumbledore asks Harry if he’s ever had too many thoughts in his head and has explained that that is why he’s putting some of his in a bowl (can’t remember the term Rowling made up). Please excuse the reference, but that’s kind of how I feel. Apparently as well as verbal diarrhea my thoughts work in the same way, no wonder Dan can’t keep up when I’m talking – I can’t keep up with my own head!

Anyway, it was whilst listening to a song which essentially is talking about a revolutionary (I hesitate to use that word as I’m not the songwriter and I don’t know if that was his intention but someone politically active and aware) who is talking to his lady friend  ‘I’d love to change the world but I just don’t feel like getting out of bed….I’m pretty sure my comrades will hold the barricades without me for a while, how about we do the washing up, for it’s what I’ve been dreaming of ‘. I was thinking, I remember listening to that at 19/20 and thinking, how can you stop caring? How can domestic issues be more important than thousands dying around the world due to unjust wars, poverty, preventable disease? And now of course, I know.

Relationship problems, miscarriage, financial problems, addiction, struggling with a child’s behaviour, unemployment, infertility, chronic illness, loss…these things, these things, are what take our attention from the global to the personal. And they should.  Our tragedies are no less important because of other ways in which we may be privileged (food in fridge, roof over head). Our lives are important, our problems, our sadness and struggles, they deserve attention – we deserve to be happy. But so do the nameless millions around the world.

So I guess I want to know where to go from here; how do normal people, with relationships, jobs, children, health and financial limitations do something to make the world better? Answers on a postcard please. I know of people who are campaigning and actively working against climate change, human right violations, poverty and to protect our environment and I marvel at how they fit it all in.

I  barely fit in children, work, our garden and Church commitments but I would so love to feel that I was doing something more. I want to make a difference, not just in my family and friends lives but further afield. I feel fidgety in my domesticity. To quote Al Baker again

‘For I want something better and I know I’m not the only one. ‘

From a Christian perspective, the world is never going to be perfect as we’re fallen…but I don’t think that’s an excuse for complacency. In Matthew 25, Jesus talks about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting those sick or in prison.

Maybe I just need to step up my game.

I know of food banks in our area in need of food and keep meaning to donate but forgetting (story of my life). Must be more proactive.

I suppose that’s why I feel so strongly about trying to be supermarket free (an ongoing mission but not entirely succesful, still buying a majority locally but have ended up at supermarkets for nappies and at some other times); it feels like one thing I can grasp onto which realistically, isn’t going to dent Asda or Tesco’s profits, but at least I feel like I’m trying to swim against the current.

I’m aware this post is a bit of a brain dump. Just thinking online really, trying to achieve a balance between my home life and actually actively caring beyond my 4 walls. There’s a march coming up in Exeter to counter the EDL march and Dan and I are planning to go with the kids. It’s a start and hopefully we might meet some more active groups there that we can get involved in.

I feel like I should streamline what I care about but it’s hard; I’m passionate about breastfeeding and natural birth, the environment, good education (at home or otherwise), local business, anti-capitalisation, the human rights of people thousands of miles away and the poverty that is everywhere if you look hard enough. If you open your eyes, there is some small (or large) injustice or broken heart everywhere you look.

I guess that’s why it’s important to still rejoice in the good things, to embrace things that make you laugh and smile, to surround yourself with people that you love. But without forgetting.

Getting that balance, is the challenge.