Last fall, in the backdrop of the pandemic, my six-year-old daughter asked to take ballet classes. So, every Wednesday, her twin brother and I brought her to a small studio. From the sidelines, he watched his sister spin, laugh and clearly have fun he wasn’t having. My son looked on longingly in a way that stung. When I asked him if he wanted to try, he had one condition: if I found another boy. Far and wide, I searched, but with no success. Thus, my son continued to watch from a distance, peering into a space where he didn’t feel he belonged.
As the twin brother to a rhythmic sister, my son has wanted to dance since he was a little boy, but over the years, his confidence diminished. Although the inclination to boogie is very much part of human nature, at least among younger boys, dancing – and particularly ballet – is considered “girls’ stuff.” Of course, dancing is in no way feminine (e.g., Fred Astaire, Justin Timberlake, etc.), but peer pressure can keep young boys fully excluded. A friend told me how at her child’s Viennese school, there were two electives: drumming and ballet. Two boys chose ballet, she shared, but when they found out they were the only two, they immediately backed out. The impulse to “fit in” is just too strong. So, while my son watches his twin glide away to dance class, he surveys what’s left for him: soccer, tennis, a musical instrument or two.
Meanwhile, a few years ago, I took my children to a basic engineering class with roughly fifteen boys and two girls. I was shocked — it seemed impossible that with all the awareness about gender bias in tech, the room was teeming with boys, yet had so few girls.
“Is this typical?” I asked the young woman working there.
“Unfortunately, it is,” she answered.
Admittedly, I have since seen a few more girls at engineering, but I have a theory about how this happens. While girls have plenty of opportunity for creative expression, boys are often subtly or overtly shut out, and end up crowding into spaces where they feel welcome: soccer, tennis, a musical instrument or two, and oh yeah, engineering. If I was a little girl looking around that engineering class, I wouldn’t find it particularly welcoming. In fact, it would look a heck of a lot like “boy’s stuff.” Yet over in ballet class, where everyone looks pretty much like me, I might feel more comfortable. Hence, while lots of girls are practicing creative expression through dance, lots of boys are becoming the next CEOs of future tech companies.
Personally, I think both are really important, but we still live in a world that stubbornly pushes young kids into gender boxes. Should it be much of a surprise that when recently asked to write down what they want to be “when they grow up,” my son chose “astronaut” and my daughter picked “ballerina.” My sense is they both would love both, but in the end, many of us gravitate toward what feels safe.
So, what are some ways we can help our small children expand their ideas about the gender box?
- Firstly, we can have open conversations about what is “for boys” and what is “for girls” pointing out examples that defy traditional gender norms (e.g., “see, some boys do have long hair” and “oh, I guess girls like playing with cars too.”)
- We can read stories about girls and boys who dare to be different. (Two we have at home are Little People, Big Dreams: David Bowie and Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, but we can crowdsource a list!)
- Finally, let’s encourage children to play with lots of different toys and to wear all colors (“Who decided some colors are for boys and some are for girls?” my kids often want to know.)
During the Covid winter, ballet classes went online. But when they reopened, my son reiterated that he would like to try. Again, I looked for another boy, posting on multiple social media pages. Commenters were supportive, but there were still no takers. Nonetheless and much to my surprise, my son mustered up the courage and went anyway: the only boy among about ten girls. These days, when I watch him dance, I feel enormous pride that in his small way, he is changing the world. Then later in the summer, both children will go to engineering camp with friends. So far, they’re all boys, but maybe my daughter will discover her inner astronaut there. Ultimately, expanding the gender box benefits everyone, creating a more interesting, authentic and tolerant world.
Abigail Somma (Abbie), a VFN member, offers coaching and training in mindfulness, emotional intelligence and achieving goals. She has teacher-training certificates from the Nalanda Institute of Contemplative Science (NYC) and Search Inside Yourself (San Francisco) and degrees from Johns Hopkins University (SAIS) and Villanova University. Her work is rooted in a belief that world peace is possible, one person at a time. www.themindfulgoods.com