The article sheds light on our ingrained instincts that guide us through raising children. Though our babies become our beloved toys from the moment they are born, how we play with them changes them to an extent we underestimate. The piece explores the far-fetched consequences of puppeteering our naive babies.
Raising engineers and housewives.
Ahsas Sood is a final year student at IIT Dhanbad, though currently quarantined (like the rest of us) within her thoughts in Panchkula. When she is not assembling resistors into electronic circuits she likes to mull over her place in the society – as a woman in technology, as a witness of our patriarchal setting and as a possible victim (like the rest of us) of our authoritative society.
I was blabbering away to my parents about this friend, Sasha, at school. Sasha and I were best friends. We’d do everything together, whether it was, playing in the dollhouse at school together, or drawing the sky in all shades of pink (it was our favorite color), or dragging the stuffed teddy bears around the school yard in the maroon plastic carts Ms. Aarti would let us borrow. We would feed our barbies in the intricately painted tea cups of the miniature kitchen set that we considered a prized possession of ours and braid my hair in all sorts of ways and later stifle our giggles at the wild haystack we had created on the top of my head.
My parents seemed thrilled about meeting Sasha but when I did introduce them to my friend, their terrified faces at Sasha’s towering self, cropped hair convinced me otherwise. “Oh, he’s a boy!”, they half-squealed.
The ecstacy and emotions involved with the birth of a baby in the family are unparalleled. We have learned to love a new life in ways so deeply ingrained within ourselves, that the baby is held in standards high as we never held ourselves in.
While we claim ourselves to be the most liberal of parents and vow to let our children indulge in the uncanniest of fantasies, we can already see the lawyer in them demanding their right to attention in the courts of the cradle, or the engineer maybe when they enthusiastically fix up the red plastic road tracks to let the monstrous juggernauts pass through.
Let us see how you fared on the test my parents took when Sasha once materialized on our doorstep. Was it the doll house that betrayed you or his strange choice of colour, pink that neglected the sufficiently masculine blue and brown he could have chosen? Was it the teddy bears or the barbies that were heartily invited to the tea parties that led you to believe he was a she? Was it his interest in intricate braids and hairdos or was it his name itself that ended in an ‘a’?
Let us understand that the early years of a child are the prime years of development of the brain (as is extensively elaborated by Daniel Goleman in ‘Emotional Intelligence’). “How parents treat their children – Whether with harsh discipline or with empathic understanding, with indifference or warmth, and so on – has deep and lasting consequences for the child’s emotional life.”
Simone De Bouveaur’s ‘The Second Sex’ candidly exposes how the gender dynamics play out. The way a child is treated, is talked to, the toys a child is left to play with and the emotions a child is subjected to (love/ distress/ sternness) take an immense role in constituting what the toddler becomes 20 years after her or his birth. These attributes have a very direct connection with the future adult, independent, fully functional self.
I cannot help but point out two harsh, bold and remarkably candid illustrations from her book.
- “While the boy seeks in himself in the penis as an autonomous subject, the little girl cuddles her doll and dresses her up as she dreams of being cuddled and dressed up herself; inversely, she thinks of herself as a marvelous doll. By means of compliments and scoldings, through images and words, she learns the meaning of the term pretty and plain; she soon learns that in order to be pleasing she must be ‘pretty as a picture’; she tries to make herself look like a picture, she puts on fancy clothes, she studies herself in a mirror, she compares herself with princesses and fairies.”
Does this perspective explain why it is often stereotyped that women take longer to get ready for a party? It is stereotyped so because they do! Does it explain why it is held that women worry about their ‘looks’ and ‘figures’ more than men do? It is held so because they do! But only because we told them to! We shoved the dolls in their hands, we shoved the mirrors on their faces and we shoved the fates on their lives.
- “The little boy, in contrast, will be denied even coquetry; his efforts at enticement, his play-acting, are irritating. He is told that ‘a man doesn’t ask to be kissed…A man doesn’t look at himself in mirrors…A man doesn’t cry. He is urged to be ‘a little man’; he will obtain adult approval by becoming independent of adults. He will please them by not appearing to seek to please them.”
Does this explain why angry fathers resort to alcohol over emotional discussions about their demanding lives? Does it explain why 12 of the 14 stoic, athletic, mighty Avengers’ characters in the famed film series were men? We shoved the rifles in their hands, we shoved the masculinity on their faces and we shoved the fate on their lives.
Let us brace ourselves for this next career option: While other fellow guardians are prematurely sure of their lawyers and engineers, do some of us then already see our beloved toddlers as housewives or househusbands when we hand them plastic kitchen sets to play with, or the life sized dolls to take care of and nurture?
It is no secret then that the careers our children choose are hardly their original picks after all. Paralelly, the roles our children take up in marriage are also barely decisions of their own making. Their characters merely reflect what was taught at a young age, that is, our girls will involve in daily homely chores and our boys will most definitely not cry lest their precious masculinity be questioned.
What our children have seen confirmed among their peers (who also like pink and have the 8-piece kitchen sets (think female) or who also play violent video games and fix up red Hot Wheels race tracks (think male)) become foundations of the kind of roles they are supposed to take in life.
Let us then, avoid an arrogant dismissal of the society that has brought up infants and groomed them for over 10,000 years, by considering the worrisome argument that if girls are not taught to be “women” (as another word for caregivers, homemakers) then who might bring up the children(?), how might our little ones learn their manners(?) or who might clean up the house(?) and who might cook the three meals(?). If not them then who?
As rational human beings, you and I understand that a division of roles and responsibilities is necessary for our communities to thrive. Borrowing insights from Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s controversial, though profoundly seminal speech ‘Annihilation of Caste’, the one that was prematurely assassinated and remains undelivered, I am compelled to point out that although a “division of labor” might be necessary, it does not in any manner imply the “division of laborers”. In different words, it is imperative that someone does the dishes and that someone mops the floor but it is not obvious that the accident of birth governs who that someone is.
Tragically, the gender roles we don today conveniently draw parallels from the infamous caste system in that the division of labor is based not on choice but rather on “the dogma of predestination”, in the words of Dr. Ambedkar. It is rather appalling how we have dutifully nurtured oppression within the mud or concrete walls of our domestic belonging.
As Nivedita Menon points out in ‘Seeing Like a Feminist’, if no one took responsibility for the homely chores services would have to be hired for a wage. Thus, this seeming worthlessness of the job usually performed by women out of a sense of “domestic responsibility” ingrained in childhood undermines the value and importance of the work performed. The earning member in the family might be thanked overtly or simply by depending upon for life but the homemaker’s work is taken for granted. This is why the ‘division of laborers’ system proves inequitable and discriminatory to me.
It might seem fairer then to let our children make their own choices, to encourage them equally in their education as well sports, to applaud their talents no matter how unconventional, to encourage our boys to take up Bharatanatyam and our girls to master boxing, to not choose their favorite colors for them even before their birth at color-coded baby showers or tying colored headbands to force their gender on them, to teach them to be self sufficient by being able to cook, clean and earn for themselves but primarily and very importantly, to let them choose their gender for themselves, be it male, female or anywhere they like on the gender spectrum.
Let us not bring up any more shackled kids into the world.