Thursday, April 28, 2011

Gender Stereotyping and its effects on young children

Back while I was doing post-grad, a friend and I were kidding around after class, drawing things on the blackboard. My friend thought I was a fabulous artist (just compared to her) and was asking me to draw this and that. One of our classmates, a much older man (in his forties, married with children, who had taken a sabbatical from work to get a post-grad degree) walked in on us, just as I was wondering what to draw next.
"Draw a kolam," he said.
"What's a kolam?" I asked.
"Rangoli," explained my friend.
"Oh I can't draw rangolis."
"Really? How is it that you cannot draw kolam?" asked the man.
"Is it compulsory for people to know how to draw kolam? Can YOU draw kolams?" I asked him.
"No, I'm a man, I don't know. Women should know how to draw kolam."

I got so heated up that I don't exactly remember what I did. But I think I shouted and ranted and walked out, or something like that, coz I remember the poor man's horrified face. He would have been thinking, "Gosh, girls shouldn't behave like this!" Heh heh!

Yes, Gender stereotypes bother me. And I try to counter them from time to time. I know better than to overreact now, but the fact is that it has taken on a new dimension now, with Puttachi at an impressionable age. Because I don't want her to grow up with stereotypical ideas in her head.

The above rangoli example is harmless. But there are others coming at us from all over, without our even realizing it, and that is what gets to me.

"He's a man, he can do it. Women shouldn't do that."

"If a man had done that, I wouldn't have been surprised, but a woman doing all that - it is so difficult to believe that it is even possible for a woman to do that..."

Don't we hear such statements quite a bit?

And it doesn't help that our mythological stories and folktales reinforce the traditional concept of women being the weaker and subordinate sex.

"Agastya was very pleased with the way his wife served him, and granted her a boon."

"The Pandavas felt that Draupadi was too weak to climb the mountain, and wondered what to do."

These statements just portray the culture and traditions of a bygone era - but children who are reading it today don't know that, unless we tell them.

Right now, since Puttachi cannot read full stories, I am the one who explains things to her. I can modify the sentences above and say something like, "Draupadi had a fever/hadn't eaten well and so couldn't climb the mountain." But what when she starts reading herself? There is no way I can control inputs - I can just step in from time to time and try to reinforce the values that I want her to imbibe.

Even my unconscious actions have reinforced stereotypes. I didn't drive for the longest time, and when we sat in my aunt's car in England last year, Puttachi said, "Women can drive? Oh!" I was shocked. Necessity, combined with this incident spurred me to start driving in the next two months. Puttachi's paediatrician is male, and we haven't gone to any other doctor with her. When I told her I'm going to my dentist who is female, Puttachi said, "Oh, are there female doctors too?"

so now, consciously in my stories, I casually bring in female pilots, female doctors, female strongmen (!!) and the like.

I've also tried changing my language at home. The large suitcases in our house are stored in the loft, and they contain smaller suitcases, and so are a little heavy. Though I can bring them down from the loft myself, I avoid doing such work when I am alone at home with Puttachi. What if I am knocked out, or slip and fall, or worse? So I wait until S gets home, but then he, not being one to sit around twiddling his thumbs, gets the suitcases down before I can even pronounce the s of "stool," and naturally Puttachi notices such things.

Earlier, I used to say, "Let's keep our clothes ready, we'll put them in a suitcase after Papa gets back and gets the suitcases down."
Now I say, "I'll get the suitcase down after Papa gets home, and then we'll put the clothes into it."
A small modification, but one, I hope, which will make a difference.

Having said all this, there is a gender stereotype working in our own house that we can simply not ignore. S goes out to work, and I cook and clean and look after my child. Naturally, in Puttachi's play-acting, this gets reflected. "When I grow up, I will become a mother," she says. That bothers me a little. Not that she shouldn't grow up and become a mother - but she shouldn't think that that is the only thing for women to do. I try and get in some of my work during daytime, even when she is around, both for my own sanity, and so that she sees me sitting at a laptop and working seriously. And of course she sees S working around the house and in the kitchen, washing up... I want her to notice little things like that - to see that we have chosen some roles for ourselves in our house because of convenience, but they are not inflexible, and everything is everybody's work, and that we have to help each other.

Besides, I also want her to know that growing up and getting married is not the only aim of life.

Recently, when Puttachi told me something with "When I grow up and get married..." I listened to her, and then said,

So are you sure you want to get married when you grow up?
Why? Everybody gets married.
Well, not everybody, you have a choice not to get married.
But if I don't get married, I will not get a baby, and I want a baby.
(Hyuk, hyuk) Yeah but you can adopt a child. (I explain)

Don't get me wrong. MArriage is a wonderful thing, and I am not discouraging that, nor do I repeat these ideas over and over again, but I want her to know that marriage is not the sole aim of a girl's life. And that is very important for all girls to know, in order to take charge of their lives.

I am perhaps rambling - but I hope you get my point. I would love to know what you do to counter gender stereotypes and give your children the right inputs.

[After I wrote this, I came across this interview of Geena Davis, via Starry's wonderful post. The interview is excellent, deals with gender stereotyping in movies and television. Puttachi doesn't watch TV - yet - so that's one less input to worry about (and man is that a dangerous source!)]

[Here's a great article about combating gender stereotypes.]

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Telling stories to children

We probably hold the world record in storytelling out here in Puttachiland, and so here are some observations I've made to get you started on telling stories to your child.

* Very young children, around two years old, don't need an imaginative storyline. Just narrating an everyday incident like a story is enough to keep them wide-eyed.

* As they get slightly older, about 2.5 to 3, you might need to insert a problem and it's solution. This age is wonderful to introduce life lessons - what happened when Lata lied, what was the result when Ajay did not brush his teeth everday - but be sure not to make it preachy - kids can spot it a mile away. Last year, my aunt asked me if I ever told any stories to Puttachi that did not have a moral :)

* After the child turns three, depending on how interested your child is in stories, and how long s/he can sit and listen, you can introduce long stories. Make some up as you go along (you will have enough experience by now :)) or fall back on mythology, folk tales, fairy tales and animal stories. If you don't know many stories, it is worth buying books of stories. It is nice to read to the children too, but actually narrating the same story gets them more interested. Don't be shy about emoting when narrating - you will never get such a rapt audience in any other situation :D

* When choosing stories from Panchatantra and Jataka and Hitopadesha, watch out - most of the stories are pretty cruel and violent, and often end with the victory of evil! You could tell them to a slightly older child (3.5 - 4) softening the edges a bit, but fairy tales and folktales with the victory of good over evil is much more enjoyable!

* When there is a long story, like the Ramayana, first start by narrating the bare bones story to a very young child. As the child grows, depending on how receptive s/he is, you can add details. Especially when there are too many names to remember, it helps by making the child familiar with the main characters before adding the others.
For example, I've been telling the story of Ramayana to Puttachi for about two years now. Initially, it got over in five minutes - now it goes on for more than 4-5 hours - spread over mealtimes of 3 days :)
For example: First I said, Dasharatha asked Rama to go away to the forest
A few months later, after introducting the three wives, I said, Kaikeyi asked Rama to go to the forest.
Some more months later - Kaikeyi's maid Manthara poisoned Kaikeyi's mind to make her ask Rama to go to the forest
LAtely - I have also introduced the sub-story where Kaikeyi gets the two boons which she makes use of to get Rama to go to the forest.

Now, our Ramayana has reached such detailing that I've also started telling her the sub-stories of Ahalya and Shabari and so on - and she can now understand it all with no confusion.

In fact, now, she is coming up with questions of her own.
Did Lakshmana also try to lift the bow? If he had, do you think he would have been able to lift it? Then he would have married Sita, no?
Why didn't Lakshmana's wife Urmila also go to the forest? Wasn't she bored? She should also have gone.

Now I know that she is ready for more detailing - but I've reached the end of my own Ramayana knowledge - I've to refer to a good book on Ramayana :D

* There is no storytime as such - any time is storytime. Somehow in our house, mealtimes have become storytimes. And sometimes, Puttachi overeats while listening to the story, and so I've to be careful. When I think she's had enough, I say, if your tummy is full, you should stop. I'll complete the story anyway. But I would like her to concentrate on the food completely and enjoy it, instead of hanging on to stories... so let's see.

* Study and research has shown that kids who are told stories regularly have better vocabulary and imagination - but don't make this a reason for telling stories to children. The joy that arises out of it makes it all worth it - everything else is just a bonus.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

New and improved (?)

Nope, you haven't come to the wrong blog. I've decided to change the look of my blog. Feels strange - after six years of having the same look. I did try a makeover once, with disastrous results, but this time, I'm going in for a no-nonsense look. I'll probably stick to it - and hope that this clutter-freeness rubs off on me in real-life (ha, if only things were that simple!)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Summer and conversation

The summer holidays are upon us and Puttachi and I are having a good time. No hurrying in the mornings - no sticking to schedules - we just do what we want to.

We have a long list of friends (hers and mine) that we are planning to meet, and we have places to visit and things to do - but in the meantime, we are engaging ourselves in a lot of activities at home. I intend to make a list of things that one can do with a child in the summer holidays - will do that shortly.

Me-time is not very easy to find now, I can read and write and work only after Puttachi goes to bed. Housework is not too difficult - I do it with Puttachi going non-stop yak-yak all around me (both literally and figuratively.) I even take her "help" to do some work, and am assured of complete cooperation. But I still do have some writing work to do during daytime. I set an alarm, and tell Puttachi to play by herself until the alarm goes off (just a half-hour chunk.) She obliges, but the moment the alarm rings, the flings herself at me, the dam breaks, and her words fall all over one another as she hurries to tells me all that she had been itching to for that whole half-hour.

The other day,
She: Amma, how old will I be on my birthday in May?
Me: You tell me yourself.
She: Four!
Me: Yes.
She: And then how old will I be next year?
Me: You tell me.
She: Five!
Me: Yes.
She: And then next May, I will be Six, then I will be Seven, then 8,9,10,11,12,13,14....

That quick. Yes, that quick. The years will just fly by and I'll wish to hold this slim, warm, wriggling child that she is now, will want to stroke her soft cheeks, and instead I'll find a teenager - a sulky teenager if she has my genes - sigh.

Then she continues....
Amma, I like you very much. So when I grow up and get married, I will not live in my own house. I will bring my husband also and stay in your house. Okay?

Yeah right :D
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