Barbie vs. lego: Giving our daughters a real choice

by Mixed Up Mama
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So I realised something this holiday. Everyday this week, we made our way to the different art galleries, literature festivals and museums, taking advantage of London’s amazing culture. Growing up in a family that spent its holidays outdoors hiking, walking outside and sightseeing mostly in the beautiful landscapes of North America, I can say that these are things that would not come naturally to me.

I make a deliberate effort in the holidays to ensure my kids are exposed to as much science and culture as possible. And true enough, even I was surprised and excited by the result. Art and science can be exciting for a child – given the right teachers and exposure.

It made me think. Unless we deliberately expose our children to new and different things from what we as parents enjoyed as children, will they ever organically discover interests other than our own? I have my doubts. Should we only pay attention to what our Children show an interest in?

Partly because of my experience. Music wasn’t big in our family, hence none of my siblings nor I, am really into it. My parents weren’t interested and thus neither were we. We  never really had the choice. To hear the radio blearing loudly in the car (even today), I find uncomfortable, preferring silence to unwanted background noise.

On the other hand though, we are all pretty sporty and outdoorsy because, growing up in Canada, that was what we were exposed to. (Mum and Dad, if you’re reading this, I’m not knocking you).

Recently, I’ve been busy looking at interesting and educational gifts for my daughter who turns 7 next month. Typing into google “gifts for 7 year olds” without specifying gender, I get a whole list of ‘science-ey’ activities and toys that I perhaps wouldn’t have thought of before. Shamefully, even with all my consciousness around the issue of gendered-toys, I assumed she’ll be less interested in them.

She’s a girly-girl, loves dressing up, role-playing, singing and dancing. But as she gets older, her tastes will change and why shouldn’t they evolve to include lego, hot wheels or magna-tiles (look them up, they’re super cool). Why shouldn’t we encourage our children to like other things?

Watching her at a classmate’s (a boy) birthday party recently, I saw her flock to toys she may never have played with or thought that she liked because she, just as I do, gets sucked into what she thinks she should be playing with. Truth be told, she loves magnets and building and ran over to me on more than one occasion to show me what she’d built or what she’d discovered.

At the science museum too, we happened upon a show that was 75% filled with little boys (the other 25% made up from what I could tell were sisters) called “The Rocket Show”. It was full of big bangs and explosions and all things we might typically associate with boys.  

My 3 year old making a structure our of manga tiles

I didn’t tell the girls beforehand what the show was about- thinking perhaps my oldest would protest that it was for boys. But as soon as we got in, my girls were captivated- right down to the explanations of Newton’s laws of motion and gravity. How many little girls missed out on that show because they thought it wasn’t for them, or it sounded like a ‘boy show’? And how many parents agreed?

Fast forward to secondary school, then university when girls are all choosing their majors. How likely are they to choose engineering having had so little exposure to building and motors and science because neither they nor their parents thought it was something they were interested in.

Ironically, my previous career was developing policy to encourage women into STEM (Science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects in higher education. I now have first-hand experience of the sad reality of gender-based subjects and I genuinely fear its future impact.


So What to do about it?

If we expose our children to a variety of interests and activities and we are deliberate about seeking out things that they may not think they are interested in, you might find your child finds a new interest- something they are good at but would never have tried before.

 What’s the consequence if we don’t? Well, maybe nothing. But it can’t hurt to try. Parents who enrol their sons in dance classes just because they’d like them to try it. It could go either way, either the boy will hate it or love it but at least he’s had the chance. Others who seek out out-of-the-ordinary type activities like circus skills or cricket for girls. How would you know unless you try?

It worries me, what my husband and I are missing in our interests and exposure. I know we’re very different so we’ve got a lot covered in terms of our interests but art and culture don’t really feature. It’s no coincidence that the offspring of two maths professors is most likely to be interested in maths.

Between us, our kids have a good chance to like books, language, urban life, history, music, sports and nature. Hubby’s view is that if they’re interested in it, one window of exposure is enough for us to know if it’s something we should pursue for her. But I’m not so sure. She never went on about dance after just one dance class. It’s been continual and cumulative- building up over time so that now our little ones are dancing and singing at every opportunity. Buying her a karaoke set is a no brainer.

My daughter is naturally good at English, reading, and writing stories. She struggles more with her maths. But is that perhaps because we, her parents, are both writers? Because we weren’t good at maths?

We have to do something differently though if we are to give our daughters a real chance to discover what they’re genuinely good at and love. She’ll love to sing because she (and us) believe it’s what she’s good at. But that science kit is something we need to make an effort to buy.

My 3 year old was just as happy to receive lego for Christmas as she was to get her new stuffy. Since then, she’s loved making different animals and shapes.

We owe it to all of our daughters that if they decide science or art is not for them, it’s not because they weren’t encouraged or exposed to it at every opportunity. It’s because they genuinely chose to do something else…

While I’ve written this with my daughters in mind, all of this can apply to sons. Whatever the gender, we cannot pigeon hole our kids into certain activities and toys just because they show a liking for them.

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