AT THE PRESCHOOL that I run (where I also teach), there’s a certain action song we sing that goes like this:
Cook like mummy,
Yum, yum, yum, (repeat thrice)
Let’s have fun together!
Drive like daddy,
Knit like grandma,
Cough like grandpa….
…and by the time we come to “Be like teacher, Shh, shh, shh!” I’m ready to pop a vein.
Since school is located in an affluent Gujarati-dominated neighborhood with a disproportionate share of stay-at-home-mothers (SAHMs) and business-absorbed fathers, the children exposed to these stereotypical gender roles do, in all likelihood, go home to the same images where they get reinforced. [Note: I do not mean to tar all SAHMs or business-owner fathers with the same brush. The point is specific to my experiences at my preschool.] And then I’m met with wide-eyed disbelief when I tell them that girls are pilots too.
So what do I undertake to combat the pigeon holes? A little juvenile song reversal (“Drive like mummy” can be a thought, to begin with right?), some questioning on how many daddies cook (one excited little arm waves at me from among a sea of puzzled heads) and, my trump card: presenting to them a real, live girl pilot in uniform! (Okay, so my life may seem a tad dull to the rest of you, but hey, when work-related travel involves busing to the zoo, I’ll take whatever excitement I get, thank you.)
I observe them at play, loath to interfere, making sure both genders have gender-neutral and –specific toys within easy reach, and then watch a little resignedly as most girls twiddle spoons in tea cups while the boys use balls as missiles. I wince when I watch a parent absently hand out a stuffed animal or doll to their daughter and darts to their son. And then wonder: how much of this is physiological and how much is so ingrained that we’re unable to separate our socialization from the hard-wiring of our brains?
Is it okay to let them believe only grandmothers have the right to a kitchen because that’s what they’ll likely see anyway or is at least a minimum level of exposure on available options necessary? I tend to veer toward the latter choice in the hope that a little boy or girl may someday remember that gender roles and boundaries may exist, but if personal happiness lies in ignoring them, then so be it.