Getting ready for the first day of a new term, I know exactly what to expect. My six-year-old daughter Ruby will scuff her new shoes, forget to eat all her lunch, and get picked on by the boys – because she wants to play with them.
Every playtime last term she came home with a long face. “Playtime was terrible, Mummy,” she told me. “The boys told me to go and play with girls but I didn’t want to; I wanted to play Ninja Turtles with them, not Hello Kitty games with the girls.”
The look of sheer disappointment on her face was hard to take, but this wasn’t the first time Ruby and I had found ourselves in this dilemma. She’s only in Grade 2 but this has already been going on for years.
She wore little dresses as a baby, I bought her dollies and enrolled her in ballet classes, but her first obsession was Spider-Man and she insisted on swapping ballet for karate.
From the age of two, Ruby has fervently asserted that she doesn’t *do* pink and she would always toss Barbie aside if there was a Lego set in sight. Now she prefers Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear and Lightning McQueen from Cars to Disney princesses.
She’s recently joined the Beavers – a forerunner to the Cubs and Scouts – after refusing to go to the local Brownies group near our home in Crawley, West Sussex, UK. She’s also insisted her hair stays cropped in a neat bob, as she can’t think of anything worse than standing every morning while I put it into a ponytail.
I strive to rationalise both sides of the argument, whether I agree with it or not. “Those boy are just showing off in front of other boys with silly ideas about boys and girls,” I’d tell Ruby. But she looked as convinced by this as I felt.
The truth is, I’m perfectly happy with Ruby’s boisterous personality. So should I be encouraging my little tomboy to be more feminine? I think not.
But it’s often difficult. You only have to look to celebrity mums like Angelina Jolie to know that I’m not the first mother to have encountered this problem.
Eight-year-old Shiloh Pitt reportedly ‘laughed in her mother’s face’ when offered the role of Princess Aurora in her mother’s recent movie hit Maleficent, as it was too much of a ‘girly’ role. Asserting herself as a tomboy from an early age, Angelina came under great criticism for getting Shiloh’s hair cut so short that people thought she looked like a boy.
And she was vilified in the press for allowing her daughter to wear cords and slogan tees. After organising a ‘soldier-themed party’ for their daughter, a source close to Angelina and Brad Pitt said: “Shiloh wants to be a boy. She wants boys’ toys, since she’s such a little tomboy.”
Apparently Brad also bought Shiloh a jeep that is safe for kids, and he’s thinking of also getting her a toy quad bike that she can drive around their property.
But if, like me, they are staying true to their daughter’s requests and personality, the couple have no doubt been doing the kindest thing they could – allowing her to shine and teaching her the importance of being true to oneself.
When invited to the princess-themed birthday party of a girl in her class at school, Ruby resolutely refused to accept the dress code. While all the other girls wore sparkling dresses with tiaras, Ruby wanted to wear her Spider-Man costume.
“Not a big deal,” I thought. But I couldn’t help but notice a strained grimace on the face of the girl’s mother when she said, “Yes, of course she can wear a Spider-Man outfit.”
I imagined a cartoon thought bubble above her head screaming, “How are you letting this happen? What are you thinking? Your daughter is going to ruin the photos!”
Ruby was completely oblivious to any kind of judgments. But secretly, my heart broke for her as I saw eyebrows of both parents and children shoot to the roof when she made her grand entrance in full Spider-Man regalia.
Ruby is just one little girl among thousands obliviously fighting back gender bias from a tender age. She has no concept of gender-specific toys, films or TV shows. She just likes what she likes.
On Ruby’s sixth birthday in January, most of her school friends brought girlie presents, like make-up sets or princess-themed puzzles.
At least seven of these gifts remain sealed in cellophane, not even opened several months later. But when my little girl asks to play games with the boys at school, they refuse to let her join in. So she’s left in the middle, not wanting to play with the girls but shunned by the boys.
Is there something I should be doing to help? Surely every parent, whether raising a boy or a girl, wants them to be impassioned and driven by the things that interest them, rather than pretending to be someone they’re not?
“Inequality is still deeply ingrained; it’s in our bones and our children know it,” says child psychologist Teresa Bliss. “The issue of acceptance in any social group is to an extent dependent on the values and norms of the wider society. In schools that create an inclusive ethos and have a strong anti-bullying message, children rarely encounter social exclusion based on their uniqueness and if they do, it is stopped immediately.”
I never went into parenting thinking I needed to follow rules. The fact is that in the 21st century, gender stereotypes still wreak havoc with young minds, even down to heavily female-merchandised pink Pritt sticks and pink Bic biros for back-to-school girlie must-haves.
“Most of us say we want our children to be unique and independent individuals,” Teresa says. “That is, until they are. Many people are limited by their own thinking and have rigid frameworks that are barriers to acceptance of individuality.”
Yet so many parents fall for it, forcing unwilling little boys into stereotypical Umbro football shirts to play Sunday league football in utter misery, and sparkly Lelli Kelly shoes on the feet of tomboys like Ruby who’d prefer to be wearing their high-tops to climb trees.
At least now Ruby seems to have been embraced into a new group of friends, all boys. They’ll let her play with their computer games and Power Rangers without batting an eyelid – something I think she is grateful for. It’s a little victory for us.
And while the Spider-Man costume fits and Ruby wants to wear it, we’ll use our superhero senses to avoid the baddies. Especially those wearing pink.