“Girls don’t run. Boys run.”
My husband and I looked at each other in horror as our almost 3-year-old, Skye, made her declaration — as confident and loud as it was wrong.
“What do you mean? Who told you that?” we asked.
“Girls don’t run. Girls turn.” Then she twirled.
We repeated the affirmations she’s already heard: Girls and boys have the same spirit. Girls can do the same things that boys do. There’s no difference.
She shook her head. She cried. It was nap time, so stubbornness won. She had no interest in a sweet lecture.
But we couldn’t believe Skye said those things. This is the same child who announced last October that she had super-powers and wanted to be Superwoman for Halloween. Skye runs up and down our long hallway all the time. She loves pretty dresses and Jordan gym shoes. When strangers say “Hi, princess,” she typically says, “I’m not a princess, I’m a superhero.”
But did we not protect her enough from stereotypes with our pledge to limit Disney princess time? Did we not monitor her tablet consumption enough? What did we do wrong?
Yet trying to reason with a sleepy, cranky toddler was like denying her snack-time.
Later that afternoon, after her quick nap, I took Skye to the birthday party for the son of a friend who owns Kido, a children’s store in the South Loop. Much of the store’s creative clothing expresses cool ideas and positivity.
A shirt with the words “Fast Like Flo Jo” caught my eye. It had a drawing of Olympic gold medalist Florence Griffith Joyner, once the fastest woman in the world. How serendipitous, I thought! I bought the shirt for Skye and we went home and watched videos of Flo Jo breaking track records.
Skye declared enthusiastically “Girls run!” She wore the shirt to bed.
I told my mother about Skye’s girls-don’t-run meltdown, still a bit worried about her gender socialization. My droll mother deadpanned, “You made it a teachable moment, now move on. She will say a lot of dumb things in life.” That’s what children do, she said.
My mother’s teachable moment to me came when I was a little girl asking for a Barbie — and she informed me Barbie was a slut.
Feminist scholar and University of Chicago political scientist Jenn Jackson has two sons and a daughter, who at 7 loves the Disney movie “Frozen” and the color pink.
“For a while, I was trying to actively challenge that, to give her contesting ideas about gender roles and gender identity. Over time, what I did was give her ‘both-and,’ ” Jackson said. “You love dresses, but what else are you excited about?”
Her daughter realized being a princess didn’t foreclose on other possibilities, such as being a knight or rock-climbing.
“So we like ‘Frozen,’ but we actively challenge ‘Frozen,’ ” she added. “We’ll sing the songs. I love those songs, but we’ll also challenge the stereotypes and embodiments that ‘Frozen’ presents us with. We engage with mainstream entertainment: What can we take from this? She struggles because she’s a 7-year-old black girl in a society that says that’s not good enough.”
Stereotypes harm boys, too. We consider the barriers girls face, but rigid ideas of masculinity stifle boys. They carry the pressure as they become men. Jackson’s 5-year-old son likes pink hats and unicorns. When someone teases him, he responds that he can wear whatever he likes.
This active parenting work takes community. My husband and I recently talked with Skye’s preschool teacher. He brought up the idea of gender stereotypes and the need to bust them. The teacher let us know how she corrects those stereotypes.
The night before our conversation, Skye exclaimed that boys can wear pink and girls can wear blue. Now we know why. Her wonderful teacher heard children say the opposite and showed them pictures of boys donning pink.
I’m currently reading the new book, “We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood” by Dani McClain. She, too, is raising a girl, a bit younger than Skye. She explores how to mother amid anxieties about race and social constructions. We all have more questions than answers, but we can navigate better when we have community.
I think back to what my mother said. Yes, I take parenting seriously, but I also give myself room, and Skye room, too. For a long time, I’ve had it in for “Frozen” and tried to keep Skye from the animated movie. Didn’t happen. It’s almost like children find things through osmosis.
But if black, queer feminist scholar Jenn Jackson can find joy in the story with her daughter, I can loosen up too. After all, mother did buy me the Barbie.
Natalie Y. Moore is a reporter for WBEZ/Chicago Public Radio.