And she was a girl!
I hoped for a girl. I felt that I knew girls. Most of my friends were girls. My professional circle was mostly female. I never felt particularly masculine myself. This was going to be easy!
Let’s rewind a bit. As a kid, I loved everything about girl-world. I secretly owned three Barbies that I literally kept hidden in my closet. I wanted to be a dancer but I was afraid to tell anyone. Would that make me too girly? I opted not to find out.
I was able to join my girl-friends in other ways, though. We collected Hello Kitty stickers, wrote in each other’s diaries, and watched My Little Pony.
Being around girls made me happy. It felt natural. But it came with a price. I was teased, and I felt ashamed of who I was. Sometimes I wished I was a girl. I imagined myself being able to play anything I wanted!
Now, fast-forward again, to the best day of my life. I was a dad. To a girl!
This was going to be fun.
But, now an adult, I also knew my daughter would face challenges that I didn’t — just because she was a girl. I knew she would be ignored, interrupted, and underestimated. She would be expected to “smile” instead of expressing her opinion. I knew she would have to prove herself over and over – just because she was a girl.
What I didn’t know, was that this notion would change how I saw the way girls play.
One day, when she was four, my daughter wanted to play princess and prince. “Ok, what does a prince do?” I asked. “He fights,” she told me. Fair enough. Then I asked what a princess did. She took both hands to one side of her face and with a soft voice said, “She looks beautiful.” What? That’s not even … sigh.
I took a deep breath. As a child therapist, I knew that playing is a child’s way to learn life skills. I didn’t want her to just practice looking beautiful while she watched me fight. This felt like a pivotal moment. She asked to play the girl-role. She cast me in the boy-role. I never enjoyed that role. But this time it felt different. I felt sad. Not for me – for her.
“Can we take turns?” I asked. And so, first I fought while she “looked beautiful,” and then she fought while I looked beautiful. As I sat on a tall play structure, watching her fight so bravely, something dawned on me. I had just discouraged the type of play I had been denied. Instead, I offered her to play something I hated as a child (though she seemed to love it).
I just kept thinking, “What are we doing to our girls?” Or further, “What are we doing to our kids?”
When I wasn’t allowed to play the princess-role as a child, I felt limited. I wasn’t allowed to be who I wanted to be. But could the same kind of play that made me so happy limit her? From how quickly she agreed to switch roles, I realized she didn’t pick the princess-role because she preferred it. She picked it because she thought it was hers to play.
In that moment my perspective switched from “my daughter gives me an excuse to do all the girly things,” to “why is she limiting herself to the girly things?”
I realized that my joy was not in giving her exactly what I had been denied. Rather, it was in giving her choice. I was so excited to play princess, I hadn’t noticed that the experience for a girl was different from mine. Basically, that this type of play limits girls when girls are limited to this type of play. (I know, say that ten times fast!)
As a boy, I benefitted from “passive play” that encouraged collaboration and relationships. It was good for me because I would balance it with leadership roles that society automatically cast me in.
My daughter, on the other hand, may have to fight harder than me for the same privileges. If she only “practices” the roles that are part of traditionally female play, she will have a limited set of skills.
I’m happy to witness a new movement that takes gender out of toys and games (and jobs). Sometimes it even feels as if we went to the other extreme. We now value when girls engage in traditionally masculine play, which often focuses on dominance, over traditionally female play, which often focuses on nurturance. I prefer a balance of all kinds of play for all kids.
Parenting allowed me to step out of my own experience and respect what this world looks like to my daughter. I am not against princess play. But I don’t want girls to be limited by it. Actually, I wrote a children’s book that challenges the traditional passive princess concept.
I’m still learning. But now that I am not limiting myself to useless stereotypes, it really is a fun journey.
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