This week, my son starts soccer. And dance class. This is what the right fears, isn’t it? Confused little boys exploring hobbies without any adherence to prescribed gender roles. He has been in ballet for two years now, and he absolutely loves it. We take him to enough theater that he gets super excited at the end of the season when he gets to be in a real “show” (dance recital). He has also done gymnastics for nearly three years. He’s incredibly agile and strong, so he’s just as fantastic on the gymnastics floor as he is at the ballet bar. I’ve steered him away from team sports mostly because of the risk of injury. He’s very excitable, and that makes for a tough combination with his natural talent for athletics. I picture him zooming down the field, kicking soccer balls into other kids’ heads, laughing as they fall to the ground in pain, and then scoring a goal before zipping over the playground where he’ll run up the slide.
My husband grew up playing team sports, and he is eager for our son to hone that natural ability. Now that he’s in Kindergarten, I relented and we signed him up for the soccer season this fall. I am nervous that he’ll fall in love with it and not want to do any of the other things he’s really good at…any of the safer things we’ve pushed him toward. I know that’s all part of parenting; we expose them to different things and let them decide what they want to do. And I also know that any parent will tell you that it’s impossible to know where the fine line lies between pushing your kid too hard to do something that you want him to do far more than he does and letting them give up too easily so that they never fully commit to anything. I played the saxophone in elementary school, and when a scheduling glitch kept me from being enrolled in band when I went to middle school, I just shrugged my shoulders and thought that this might be an easy way to avoid practicing. My parents didn’t push me; they returned my saxophone and I never played again. Soon after, I regretted my decision, and now more than 25 years later I wish they had made me stick with it just a little longer. I know now my parents must have struggled with the same issues I’m dealing.
In any event, our son has decided he wants to try soccer, he is graduating to the ballet/tap combo class that his sister is in, and he is taking an all boys dance class. In the recital two years ago, the boys class simply stole the show, and I’m hopeful he knows that he will bring the house down if he sticks with it until May for this year’s recital. For right now, he appears to be both embracing and bucking the gender roles that society assigns him. We’ve had the talk with him that there might be some kids who say that dance is only for girls, and he very earnestly mimics back what we’ve taught him to say: “That’s not true. I’m a boy, and I’m in dance class, so it can’t just be for girls.”
Obviously he won’t have the same problem with soccer, but what I worry about on that end is that he will slowly begin to fulfill people’s stereotypes of what boys with brown skin are good at. He’s dark-skinned? Of course he’s good at sports! There is lots of research out there that these assumptions lead to lower academic expectations for boys of color, and my son is far too smart to be cheated out of his education simply because he is also very athletic.
Our daughter is another story. Girls are fed such different lines in our world about what is acceptable for them and what isn’t. Their options are far more limited than boys, and to combat that harsh truth requires a lot of prevention and intervention. We struggle with this with our African American daughter. On the one hand, we don’t want her growing up equating her worth with beauty. There are all those articles out now about the ways to talk to girls, how we should avoid commenting on their looks when we speak to them. I wholeheartedly agree with that, and at the same time, the absence of those comments to a black girl only reinforces the subtle negative elements at work in the media telling her she’s not beautiful. I wonder if it’s better to comment on her beauty consistently in order to combat the implicit messages she receives from our society. Obviously, this isn’t the only thing that we complement; we stress with both our kids how great it is when their hard work leads to terrific outcomes, how they’ve become good at something by making many mistakes and learning from them, and how their intelligence grows when their brains are exercised regularly.
When our daughter was three, Disney released The Princess and the Frog, featuring the first ever African American Disney princess. We were torn. Do we embrace this important moment in popular culture and at the same time immerse our daughter in the commercialized, sexualized vapidity of the Disney Princesses? Or do we shun it completely, forbid her to take part, and deprive her of a certain social capital when she started hanging out with friends whose parents let them watch all the Disney movies at birth? We opted for the former, and we went nuts for Princess Tiana. We keep the dialogue open about all the movies she watches: “Isn’t it silly how Ariel’s waist is so small? That’s not realistic at all!” and “Why does Belle feel she should be nice to the beast when he’s treating her so badly? She should probably just walk right out of there unless he’s going to treat her right.” We still let her get dressed up as Tiana at Disney World. We try to walk the line with her: we let her feel beautiful because she is and because there will be a time when she feels the world is telling her she’s not. I know that’s something that all girls deal with, and then there’s an added layer for women of color who can rarely look at the celebrity world of beauty to see images that look like them. Certainly we can hold up the Westernized versions of black beauty–Halle Berry and Beyone–but why are the naturally kinky haired beauties like Jill Scott and Erykah Badu relegated to something less than sex symbol. Do you see why this whole thing drives me nuts? I’m upset that certain women aren’t being objectified! That’s insane!
Of course our daughter is also doing soccer, so perhaps I should just rest on my laurels and be content that while she’s tapping her troubles away on Mondays, she’ll be shredding the turf with her cleats on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The kids will be what they’re going to be, and luckily they are growing up in a house where we cannot divide the labor along traditional gender roles. Maybe that will be enough to counterbalance all they see in the world around them. I guess it will have to be.