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Ugly Parents

August 20, 2011

In case you missed this, my job is to take care of other people’s children; I hope to become an infant/toddler teacher, and I’m a nanny for now. I love my job, take it very seriously, and the parents I work for appreciate this, as they should. I would throw myself in front of a bus to protect a child in my care, and I’m not usually even related to them. All of which is to say, I care about children. I know a lot about children in general–their development, their physical and emotional well-being. I have formal training from school and work and informal training from parents like my sister and the families I work for. The specific children in my care totally capture my heart. As you might imagine, my services are in pretty high demand.

Shutting down the judgmental part of my brain, the part that silently yells at parents in shopping malls, has become a very important skill. I work in families’ homes, and I see how hard parents try. Your choices are none of my business, and I don’t know your family as well as you do. Plus, I don’t want you telling me how to raise my kid, when I have one, so I don’t tell you how to raise yours.

But I will not be keeping my mouth shut about this: if you want a babysitter who will police gender boundaries for you, find someone else. With me, your children will play pretty much however they want to play. I will not discourage your daughter from her love of backhoes and construction sites. I will not discourage your son from his love of pink tutus and princesses. If I hear “that’s for girls” or “that’s for boys” I will have a conversation with your child about why that statement is just not true. If they heard it from you, I will still tell them that it’s nonsense.

In order to describe how I came to this conclusion and how I try to identify families I might not want to work with, I’m going to tell you two stories.

Background story #1–I spent this summer working part-time at a child care center that implements the following dress-up play policy: any kid can wear anything as long as it’s safe and sanitary. Boys dress as princesses. Boys wear “fancy shoes” that are often covered in glitter. They particularly love the fancy shoes, mesmerized by the way the glitter sparkles as they walk. They love it at 1, 2, 3, 4 and even 5 years of age. But the five-year-olds at the center have recently started saying “pink is gross” and taunting anyone wearing the color. They don’t know why it’s gross. We don’t know exactly where they picked it up, or who started it.

So this morning, an article called “The Pink Scare” in Bitch Magazine hit me hard. In this piece, the unflappable Avital Norman Nathman, aka The Mamafesto, blogger extraordinaire, discusses media coverage of “princess boys.” It seems that some people are afraid of what might happen if boys interact with too much pink. Yes, the color, in general. Dresses, crowns and anything princess–also scary.

My face turned lobster red as I pictured a grumpy adult taking away “my” babies’ fancy shoes because “pink is for girls” or telling a boy that he can’t be a princess. The “pink is gross” battle the teachers are fighting at the preschool comes from fear based in the very adult concept that deviating from traditional gender roles is dangerous. I do find Avi’s piece uplifting simply because it shows that there are moms like her standing up for a child’s right toplay. But I am very, very angry after reading her summary of all the ways adults insert their fears into children’s lives.

Background story #2–A few months back, I found myself in a backyard “light saber” battle with a five-year-old and suddenly realized I had no idea how his parents would feel about this. (They were fine with it. We had a blast.) He was really interested in using the light sabers he had cleverly improvised from foam swimming pool noodles as props for the story he was narrating, and violence was not the point. So I made a judgment call. I still think it was the right call. I would have asked him to change the game, however, if his parents had had rules against this sort of pretend violence.

Since then, I ask during the following question during an interview: “Is there anything you do not allow your children to do during play?” In the past, I always had in mind pretend guns and swords made from sticks. So I still ask first about violence in play. But I just recently started asking this as a follow up: “If you came home to see your son playing ballerina with my pink scarf, for example, would that upset you?” As you might have guessed, I am interviewing parents with that question.

Didn’t I say I wouldn’t judge? Didn’t I say that I respect parents’ wishes? It turns out, there’s an exception: ugly parents. If you tell your kid he can’t have anything pink because a color is only for one gender, not both, or that a game is only for one gender, not both, then you are teaching sexism and homophobia. I will not participate. I will not encourage your child to fear the blurring of gender binaries just because you are afraid. I will not help you make your beautiful child as ugly as you are. I will not take part in the insidious flood of messages that follow kids until they learn that “feminine” = “weak” = “gay” or “bossy” = “bitch” = “lesbian” or any other nonsense a culture of fear can come up with.

This idea of Ugly Parents came from a blog post about one woman’s unique reaction to bullying. Photographer and small business owner Jen McKen is now refusing to photograph “ugly people.” Why? Some of the clients who had booked her turned out to be students participating in a Facebook page dedicated to bullying their classmates. In her words, “If you are ugly on the inside, I’m sorry but I won’t take your photos to make you look pretty on the outside!” I love it. She is simply taking a stand against something she personally finds reprehensible. Less apathy, more action. Me, too, Jen McKen. Me, too. I will not babysit for ugly parents.

Avi (we’re twitter “friends,” so we’re on a first-name basis, right?) closes “The Pink Scare” with this beautiful statement: “As I watch Elijah play with his fleet of cars, his nails painted a glittery purple, I’m confident that he will be able to see through the shades of pink, blue, and gray surrounding him in order to figure out who he is. And if he can have fun doing it, then all the better.” Because it is how we learn who we are as children and because it is FUN, I want to say “yes” to play. If I say no, I want to give a child a reason. I am being paid to spend time with a child, so I like to take time to explain every little thing, if that’s what they want. “That’s not safe,” “We don’t have time for such a big project today,” and “That doesn’t belong to us” are answers I like. They teach common sense, time management and respect for other people’s belongings (and that includes the family couch). These answers start conversations. They don’t end play, they redirect.

Parents hire me and pay me, but I work for kids. I want to be another adult who cares, listens and encourages them to explore and enjoy childhood, with all its joys, disappointments, limits and limitlessness. I love that little kids are never afraid to look me right in the eye and ask questions. Generally, those questions add up to “Who are you?” I answer them honestly, because everyone deserves honesty (not necessarily every piece of information I could possibly share, but that’s another conversation). Then, I ask them right back. When I ask “Can you tell me about this drawing?” I am asking “Who are you? What’s important to you?” Every parent, including my own mom, loves a quote that goes something like this, about early childhood: “Anyone can act like a tiger, but we only have a few years to be a tiger.” Why is that only cute if it applies to a furry animal? I will not help anyone who wants to limit a child’s imagination. I will not repeat “You cannot be ____ today.” Why do we have to tell any four-year-old that boys can’t be princesses? Why does it matter if the real-life title is gender-specific? And, more importantly, WHAT ARE YOU TEACHING YOUR CHILD when you say such things?

Be a tiger. Be a princess. Be a king. Be a dancing giraffe. I’ll pretend right along with you. Let’s play.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. August 21, 2011 9:35 am

    Love this post. Coincidentally, Jacob’s first move this morning was toward one of my beaded bracelets that’s mostly pink. He wore it for the first part of the morning. It was adorable how proud he felt wearing it (probably proud he could keep it on.) Anyway, thanks for sharing your perspectives on this! Good stuff…

  2. August 21, 2011 9:45 am

    Love him!! Yeah, it’s a color. How do parents have time to worry about it?

  3. Mom permalink
    August 21, 2011 11:38 am

    It’s perfectly normal for children to try different personas on and when they turn 5-ish it’s also normal for them to think the opposite sex are, “ooo, yucky”. They’re just trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in. They want to identify with their parents, grandparents, caregivers, the cool kid on tv or down the block. In order to do that they do it through play.

    Children trying on clothes and playing with toys that are commonly favoured for the opposite sex is normal. It doesn’t make them gay, a transexual, transgendered etc. It’s also normal when they start favouring toys that are commonly favoured for their gender. Childhood is about play and through play they learn about life, about people.

    My son likes action. He loves super heroes and villains. (I do encourage him to be the hero thwarting bad guys though). It doesn’t mean he can’t play Little Pet Shops with his sister though. He’s playing, he’s learning, and as long as he’s learning to be a good person I don’t care what he plays with.

    My daughter used to only wear pink: socks, shoes, shirts, hair bows, etc but now she wants nothing to do with them. Now that she’s older she likes green. So I buy her green stuff now. Big deal. It doesn’t mean she’s a frog. She’s just trying out something different. And, if she did turn into a frog (a la The Princess and The Frog) I’d love her anyway. 🙂

    • August 21, 2011 12:09 pm

      I completely agree that the “ooo, yucky” phase is normal. I also like to have the conversation with kids. I love that I have time to talk to them about it! (If they don’t want to talk, I don’t try and force it.) And I also agree that anyone who reads “gay” “transsexual” or “transgendered” into this kind of play is inserting adult sexuality into childhood, which is just not okay with me. Can we at least wait until they want to have sex with someone before we start with the labels?! [The author of “My Son is Gay” meant for her title to point out the absurdity of adults’ comments about his Daphne costume on Halloween–thinly veiled homophobia directed at a five-year-old.]

      I just want them to feel loved and free to express their imaginations and free to ask questions and say anything they want to say. I’m all about the kind of play you’re describing. When I brought my niece to a fabric store to pick out a pattern and fabric, she went for a dress pattern and pink fabric–she loves it! I just hate the idea of forcing it on a girl or away from a boy. And by the way, I would totally babysit for you!

  4. judy permalink
    August 21, 2011 12:18 pm

    I agree. A child’s mind does not contain a prejudice against a color, a person because of gender or sexual orientation, a physical handicap, a religion, or a political point of view. In that respect we have nothing to teach them but they have everything to teach us. We just need to take the time to watch and learn from them.
    I have a funny little story about this subject for you. At the end of his first semester away at college, Nathan came home with his fingernails painted! Every other one blue then green. I was kind of holding my breath when I asked what was up with the nail polish. He said friends (I suspect were girls) were painting thier nails blue and green, the school colors, and somehow (dare or not) he allow them to put it on his nails but then, no one had nail polish remover (I don’t know how long it had been on for at this point). Nathan being Nathan puts his usual possitive spin on the situation. He was on the Fencing team. He said the opposing team was so distracted by the nail polish he was able to get in extra points! Got to love him! and I do!

    • August 21, 2011 3:45 pm

      You’re so right! I spent today learning how to laugh more with the toddler you met during your visit–they used to be our neighbors. He has the best laugh! And it’s so easy to make him laugh! I just thought “You are right. This massive bean bag is really one of the coolest things ever.” (It is the size of a floor rug.) I love that you wrote that nail polish story here, Judy! Was his hair blue, too, at the time?

      • judy permalink
        August 22, 2011 8:29 am

        No, The blue hair was a different creative phase in his life, I’m blessed, there are many 🙂

  5. August 21, 2011 12:29 pm

    1st. you are *way* too complimentary toward me and I totally blushed. and yes, we’re totally on a 1st name basis 😉

    2nd. I loved reading your thoughts. I especially loved this line “Parents hire me and pay me, but I work for kids” – it’s so wonderful to see child care givers remembering this key point. Of course you respect the parents, but in reality you’re there for the kids. If more child care providers held your beliefs, it would be awesome.

    And I have to agree with the commenter above who said that 5 is one of those contrary ages…today it could be “pink sucks” and tomorrow “green sucks” – as long as they’re not equating it to “pink sucks b/c girls like it” then it’s probably more the age than the message (does that make sense? it’s Sunday after a looooooong weekend and my brain’s a bit too tired to function atm).

    Anyway – so glad you shared these thoughts! xo

    • August 21, 2011 3:42 pm

      The way it happened at work was not about color preference, it was about finding a way to exclude someone (which they seem to love finding creative ways of doing–we had a “secret map” phase, too). Something definitely happens around five where they realize “wow, I have this power to exclude or include friends in my game!” and it seems to fascinate them. The “pink is gross” phase was the first time I had seen the class divided along gender lines. A boy who was wearing pink nail polish said it to a girl. If a kid says “I hate green.” I say “Oh.” But a child at the center said “Pink is gross, don’t sit by her!” and scooted away from the girl wearing pink, taking all his friends with him. She looked so miserable. I said “That was disrespectful and very unfriendly. Show me that you can be better friends than that or you will lose your privileges for this game.” They sat right back next to her in a hurry! Again, they are looking for ways to explore this new idea of exclusion/inclusion. But pretending to hate pink in order to exclude girls is not like the secret maps–it’s not kids being creative. It’s one message that’s part of so many other messages that add up to way too many limitations based on gender. Wow, I am tired too, because I tried to type that ten times and I’m still not sure it makes sense! Thank you so much for reading, Avi!

  6. August 23, 2011 10:26 am

    Great post Anne-Marie! I would hire you in a heartbeat!

    I think many folks have really forgotten what childhood is, because we’ve allowed it to be dictated to us by marketers, and not our children’s hearts.

    I’m gonna keep doing in the old fashioned way, and let my kids decide just how to be kids….feral animals that they are. My daughter thinks she’s a dolphin, my son loves nail polish and pink and yellow. And we’re all perfectly happy and healthy.

    The children you work for are very lucky to have you. 🙂

    • August 23, 2011 2:05 pm

      Is it a dolphin today? Wasn’t it “somewhere between a beluga and a killer whale” earlier this week? Oh gosh, I just had the best image of a dolphin dance party… (Dance parties, with kid-appropriate music, of course, are a great sibling activity!)

      Thank you. I feel lucky to have these children in my life!

  7. August 23, 2011 11:06 am

    You said this all so perfectly that I’m linking to you on my (shared) blog tomorrow morning. It’s called The Sewing Experiment, and we explore (in part) gender bias in crafting. We are radical enough to think that boys should be able to sew and knit if they damn well please and girls should be able to reject sewing and knitting if THEY damn well please, because gender does not determine interest or skill. I’m also starting to write more about misogyny, homophobia, etc. because it’s all part of the same gender stereotyping nonsense.

    Kudos and Praises to you for this amazing post and for your stance on this issue!

    • August 23, 2011 2:35 pm

      Thank you! Did I mention that I LOVE sewing? Thank you for talking about this because I was starting to think I was the only one pissed off about it. Even kids’ fabrics only come in pink and blue. (I thought I’d be able to get around some of the gender stereotyping in clothes for my niece and nephew by making them outfits, but I have to use adult fabrics! Too many cute prints only come in “baby pink” and “powder blue”!) Oh, and crafting kits are terrible! What happened to the bird houses and animal things I made when I was little? Those stupid princesses have taken over craft shops, too! Thanks for linking to me, and I’m excited to read your blog!

      • August 24, 2011 9:00 am

        You love sewing, too? Woohoo! You are all kinds of awesome.

        We started the blog one night over drinks because we were talking about the Duggars, of all people. I had read that in their custom built house, the girls have a sewing room near their dorm-style bedroom. They boys have an editing/graphics/video/computer room near them. Of course, I don’t know what each child does, but my friend and I started asking ourselves, “What happens in the Duggar household if a boy expresses interest in sewing? What if one of the girls wants to drive the backhoe?” And it all went downhill from there… 🙂

  8. August 23, 2011 1:15 pm

    A friend complained to me not that long ago that she was looking for a nanny for her two girls, but wasn’t having any luck because none of the nannies thought this way. Among her questions was one that was something along the lines of, “What would you say if my daughter (3 at the time) wanted to only play with trucks and tools?” Everyone she interviewed said they’d tell her things like, “You’re a girl and dolls are for girls,” or offer her pink tutus.

    That wasn’t at all what they were looking for. I never did hear if she found anyone.

    • August 23, 2011 2:30 pm

      Hmmm. You know how I would answer that question, but it’s possible that the child care providers she interviewed thought that she was looking for the “traditional” answer. (Which doesn’t actually have much tradition behind it, but whatever.)
      I wonder if she’d get a different response if she rephrased with something like “I want my daughter to have as many choices as possible and not be limited to anything just because she is a girl. How would you handle a situation in which someone offered her a pink balloon when she clearly wanted an orange one?” Then, you’ll know if this nanny will stand up for what you believe in, which is really the important piece. You want that nanny to march up and demand an exchange! “You didn’t ask her what color she wanted! Kiddo, tell them which one you want.” A child care provider who doesn’t share your beliefs can still back you up, so what you’re really looking to avoid is hiring someone who is going to undermine what you are trying to teach your daughter by telling her that pink/dolls/tutus are for girls. A hypothetical like the one I described might help your friend find someone who will do a good job, even if she’s not the dream nanny she had in mind.

      • August 23, 2011 3:03 pm

        I was paraphrasing for her question. I can’t remember exactly how she asked it. I do know she purposely didn’t want to lead them with the question. She wanted to know how they felt or what they would do without coloring it with her expectations.

        Her oldest (the 3-year-old) liked to announce that she was a boy and the parents were fine with that. Not everyone else around her was, though. The parents really wanted to be sure whoever helped with the kids was going to respect that.

      • August 23, 2011 3:12 pm

        It totally stuns me that people can be negative to a three-year-old. A three-year-old once announced to me that a man could become a daddy if he just grew his hair out–with long hair, he could have a baby in his tummy! I said it didn’t really work that way and he looked at my with such pity! Poor, ignorant, Anne-Marie!

        Gender isn’t a fixed attribute for kids that age, and no amount of lecturing makes it so. Grown ups need to learn that and get over it. Good for your friend for standing up for her daughter’s childhood!

  9. August 25, 2011 12:22 am

    A breath of fresh air is what you are. 🙂


  1. Pink Guns and Muddy Tiaras: Let The Children Play The Way They Want To « The Sewing Experiment

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