Life as a ‘Girl Mum’

A common phrase on social media and in the blogging world at the moment seems to be ‘Boy Mum/Mom’. This phrase accompanies pictures of or posts about boys getting muddy, making mess and generally being the boisterous, unhygienic, loud, football-loving, book-hating creatures that stereotype tells us they’re supposed to be. I could write a whole post on how damaging that stereotype is (and I probably will). Today, however, I’d like to give you a comparison.

I am a Girl Mum. Actually, I’d never describe myself that way usually, I’ve literally just used that phrase to counter ‘Boy Mum’. I’m a Mum. Anyway, my point was that I am parent to a girl and only a girl. What does that look like?

Well, I imagine that on a daily basis, it looks pretty similar to parenting any other child. I make sure she’s washed and dressed every day. I give her food. I listen to her read. I help with her homework. I get her to school on schooldays.

But what do we do for fun? Well, I look through those ‘Boy Mum’ pictures and posts and I have to say, it looks pretty familiar. Trips to the park, where she generally ends up covered in grass and mud stains. We might take her bike with us, or a ball to kick around together. We might go to collect leaves and other things to take home and look at under her microscope. We go fossil hunting on the beach. We have Nerf battles, our house is often littered with darts that I find weeks later under furniture or lurking in corners. She plays computer games – LEGO Dimensions is the big favourite at the moment. She’s just started up a new hobby – Warhammer 40K, which she plays with her Dad (I am not a fan, just not my thing). Her army are Nurgles, which she picked because, in her own words, ‘they look gross and really vicious’. She loves reading adventure stories with plenty of pirates and ghosts. She watches Marvel films, Doctor Who and Star Trek.

Do I think this is a picture of life that other parents of girls would recognise? Actually, I reckon there are going to be bits they do and bits they don’t. I don’t reckon every parent of a boy would recognise everything in that description either. You see, I have this sneaky suspicion that all children are different and therefore like different things.

Some people are definitely going to accuse me (because they have before) of purposefully directing my daughter towards activities that counter existing stereotypes. Well, no I haven’t. In addition to everything I already listed, she likes baking, My Little Pony and has recently developed something bordering on an obsession with Disney’s The Descendants. She frequently chooses to wear floral dresses (although she’ll equally be found in jeans and t-shirts most days). I believe it’s my job as a parent to introduce my child to as many different experiences as possible (obviously allowing for safety) and encourage her in anything she takes an interest in. I would still be doing this if I’d given birth to a boy instead of a girl.

 

The only difference I can seriously think of between being parent to a girl compared to a boy is that I didn’t need to teach my daughter to pee standing up. That’s it.

So please stop assuming that your life with muddy children and a house filled with dinosaurs and comic book characters looks like that because your children are male. You are only perpetuating a stereotype. I know that’s easily done. After all, we’re surrounded by stereotypes. They’re constantly reinforced by media and other people and our own experiences (which were probably also modelled on stereotypes, creating a vicious cycle). But we can stop doing it and I believe we should. It is damaging. Instead, let’s accept that all children are uniquely themselves. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Thanks for reading.

 

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My Thoughts on ‘No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?’

As mother to a girl, I’ve always been concerned about her facing certain challenges in life due to her gender. I feel like my concerns are justified when she’s told by her male friends that she can’t play football with them or when even a teacher said that because she’s creative, she could have a career designing handbags. Now, I see nothing wrong with a career in fashion design but I couldn’t imagine the same suggestion being made of a boy who shows creativity. Why should any child be pigeon-holed due to their gender?

I first heard about the BBC Two programme ‘No More Girls and Boys: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?’ when a clip from the programme popped up on my Facebook feed. The video showed babies being dressed as the opposite gender (i.e boys in dresses) and then placed in a room of toys with a volunteer adult instructed to play with them. The adults clearly segregated the toys based on the gender they believed the child to have, even when the child showed a preference for something else. It sparked my curiosity so I decided to sit down and watch this programme last night.

I will immediately say that I think the title of this programme has been poorly chosen. Okay, it is a series and maybe the first episode didn’t cover this, but thus far there has been no mention of questioning gender identity but rather questioning and challenging stereotypes around the different genders. From looking at the social media response, I think people saw the title and made a snap judgement. I’m well aware that the title might well have been purposefully chosen to generate a heated debate before it was even broadcast. Anyway, onto my thoughts on the actual programme.

The presenter Dr Javid Abdelmoneim carried out this experiment on a class of Year 3 (age 7-8) children at a UK primary school. Basically the idea was to eliminate anything in their environment that negatively promoted a difference between boys and girls. This included the segregation of the girl’s and boy’s coats to separate cupboards to the classroom bookshelves being clearly organised by gender to the teacher’s use of gendered endearments. By the way, I think the teacher was enthusiastic, seemed to genuinely care about the children and when criticised, he was quite determined to make changes to help his pupils.

What struck me as really sad and quite shocking was how the children spoke about gender. I imagined, perhaps naively, that amongst children there would be more equality and less stereotyping. But boys and girls alike described men as ‘better’ and ‘more important’ than women. One boy believed that men must be more intelligent than women because the President is a man. Now, if he means the President of the United States, that seems almost laughable right now, but I digress.

Other differences shown by tests carried out were a lack of empathy and ability to communicate about emotion in boys and a tendency for girls to underestimate their own abilities. I immediately thought of my own daughter, whose end of term report told me that she believes herself to be far worse at maths and writing than she really is.

Even I have always assumed there are certain differences between men and women. Women are generally more empathetic and better in touch with their emotions, while men are better at spacial awareness. I’ve taken these things for granted because scientific studies of adults confirmed them. But the Professor of Cognitive Neuroimaging in the programme said that at if you looked at children’s brains, the differences between girls and boys was barely there at all. She concluded from her own research that differences in adults were the result of training. Men are better at spacial awareness because boys are given more opportunity to train their brains in this skill. I’m not going to listen to one scientist and decide they must be right but I’ve read other studies on the malleability of the brain and how training does alter it’s structure so it does make some sense to me. If we gave girls an equal opportunity to train themselves in spacial awareness, would this particular difference still exist?

The children in the programme were asked specifically about which jobs they considered to be for men or women. It wasn’t really surprising to hear that women should be hairdressers, teachers and nurses, while men should be police officers, fire fighters and soldiers. They were introduced to people in professions not traditionally linked to their gender: a male make up artist, a female mechanic, a male dancer and a female magician. I thought this was a great step towards showing the children that jobs do not need to be segregated by gender. By the end of that session, at least one boy said that he realised that these were ‘everyone jobs’, not just for men or for women. After being quite disheartened at the original comments made, it was great to see this change happening, especially with such ease. It only took a few changes, a few challenges to achieve this.

Being a former literature student, I was especially interested when the discussion turned to books. According to an American study, only 31% of children’s books have a central female character. Although, this was the only statistic given and I did wonder how this was measured. For example, the main character in Harry Potter is obviously a boy but the series is full of strong female characters. It is true that many books are obviously gendered and characters are often stereotypes – boys who are aggressive and badly behaved and girls who are passive and obsessed with their looks. To challenge this, books were introduced to the children in the study that showed strong female characters as heroes.

The final part of the programme challenged the idea that men are physically stronger than women. It was proven to the children, through a fun fairground game, that there’s not really any difference between girls’ and boys’ strength at their age. However, if you took an average man and an average woman, I believe the man would be physically stronger, due to differences in biology that occur during puberty. Surely the message that we need to get across is firstly that a woman can be strong – through training in the same way as a man would – and also that physical strength is not the most important attribute a person can possess. We don’t live in a society where physical strength plays much of a role anymore. There are indeed jobs that require it but I don’t think that’s the majority at all. Even in the jobs that do require it, women are capable of reaching the standards needed, such as to be police officers or to join the army.

Overall, I found the programme interesting and enlightening. I’ve always tried to raise my daughter in such a way that she feels capable of achieving her goals if she works hard at them. She enjoys a huge range of activities and interests, some probably stereotypically feminine but equally many that really aren’t. The most important thing, as far as I’m concerned, is that she made the choice.

Surely that’s the most important thing: to make sure children’s choices aren’t limited, as much as is practical. I hope teachers, parents and other children’s caregivers question how they treat girls and boys and make these positive changes to make treatment more equal.

Did you watch the programme? What were your thoughts?

 

 

Let’s Talk About PANTS

The PANTS rule was created by the NSPCC as a way to talk to your child about being in control of their bodies and keeping their private bits private. It’s a way of preventing abuse without having to talk about abuse specifically.

P stands for Privates are Private. This is about teaching children that their pants cover up their private bits. Those are the bits that aren’t for other people to see, unless it’s a parent or medical professional and then they should explain why and ask the child for permission first.

A stands for Always Remember Your Body Belongs To You. A vitally important message and one that really needs to be taught from a young age. Children should not be made to do something with their bodies that makes them feel uncomfortable or embarrassed.

N stands for No means No. Even if it’s a trusted family member asking for a hug, a child has the right to say no and it’s our job to teach them that. And if they say no, their choice should be respected, not treated like a bad thing.

T stands for Talk About Secrets That Upset You. Children should feel that if someone tells them a secret they feel uncomfortable with, they can tell another grown up they trust. Two of our key values as a family are honesty and being open with each other. If it’s something like a birthday surprise, then we say it’s a ‘Good secret’, to make clear that it’s not something bad that’s being hidden.

S stands for Speak Up, Someone Can Help. This is about making sure a child knows they have a range of people to speak to if someone does something to make them feel scared or uncomfortable. Again, this is about making sure there’s open discussion and that any problem or worry can be talked about and wherever possible, we’re here to help.

The NSPCC have also created a fun character – Pantosaurus – complete with his song about PANTS. This makes the whole message that bit more child friendly and hopefully memorable too!

I cannot overstate how importantly I view this conversation. It’ll take a bit of time and maybe there’ll be some awkward questions but you’re keeping your child safe. I know it’s not something we want to think about but child abuse does happen. I think many people have some stereotype in mind of the kind of family abuse occurs in but this is simply false.

If you read my last ‘Let’s Talk About…’ post, you’ll know that I’m a survivor of child abuse myself. I can tell you that from my personal experience, if I had been told the PANTS rule, I might have told someone right when the abuse began, before the serious damage had been done. Instead I just felt scared and confused, convinced to hide what was happening. I, and many other people like me, could have been saved from a horrific childhood, as well as a lifetime of consequences to deal with.

Please have this conversation with your child today.

Thanks for reading.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health

Mental health has been in the news quite a bit recently, with the Heads Together campaign by the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge and Price Harry.

I listened to Prince Harry’s frank conversation about his mental health with Bryony Gordon on her Mad World Podcast. It was inspirational and deeply moving. This is exactly what’s needed for the stigma of mental illness to end: people talking about it openly.

I’ve been fairly open about my own mental health issues. I suffer from PTSD, caused by childhood abuse. This causes anxiety, depression and panic attacks. I cope with this much more effectively than I used to. I spent pretty much all of my teenage years trying to hide everything I was feeling. When I realised that this coping technique wasn’t going to work long term, I had to face everything that had happened to me. I became very introverted, I spent most of my time at home alone for a couple of years. Even when I had my daughter, I’d force myself to take her to play groups only to sit in the corner and hope that nobody would try and approach me.

Moving to Cardiff was a big turning point. I tried making friends for the first time since high school. But I still needed help. I went to my GP, was prescribed anti depressants and put on a waiting list for counselling. The medication did help. The counselling was better, even if I did have to wait a whole year for it and even then only got six sessions. My counsellor suggested lots of books I could read. Books about other abuse survivors and how they cope with PTSD. I also read up on why people abuse, which was difficult but did help me realise that it was nothing to do with me and everything to do with my abuser’s issues. Late last year, I stopped taking medication (which was very difficult). These days, I still have bad days (and the odd bad week or even fortnight) but I’m better equipped to deal with it now.

Talking does help. Husband was the first person I confided in about the abuse. He was, simply put, brilliant. But talking to a professional was important too. We need to encourage people to seek help for mental health in the same way as we all would for any physical illness. With 1 in 4 adults suffering mental illness of some kind during their lives, we need to stop viewing this as a weakness or abnormality.

I’ve taken this into consideration in how I talk to my daughter and encourage her to talk to me. She knows it’s okay to say that she’s not okay. She knows that if she has any problems, little or big, she can talk to me and/or her Dad. Even if she’s done something wrong, it’s always better to talk about it than try to hide it.

As adults, we might think that children’s problems can’t be nearly as big or important as our own but we need to remember that what might look quite insignificant to us can be overwhelming for a child. We need to at least attempt to see it from their perspective.

I still struggle with how to discuss my own mental health with my daughter. She knows very little detail about my life before she was born. She asks questions that I don’t know how to answer. I want to set a good example of being open and honest about feelings but I know my issues are just far too complicated for her to understand, even aside from her being too young to be burdened with such things. It’s that tricky balancing act of protecting children while also introducing them to the real world and properly equipping them to live in it.

How have you approached the subject of mental health with your children? Have you suffered mental illness and, if so, how have you coped with it as a parent?

Let’s Talk About Religion

Another tricky subject to discuss today: religion.

I’ve had a tricky relationship with religion personally. I was raised Christian until about age 9 when my parents seemed to give up on the whole thing (I’m not sure why, they never really spoke to me about it). I was then what I’d probably describe as agnostic through my teens. In early adulthood, I briefly became religious again but then realised that hadn’t been because I really believed in it, it was because I felt isolated and depressed and wanted to belong to something (not good reasons for belonging to a religion, I now admit). These days, I’m an atheist.

From when she attended nursery at a Catholic Primary School, to going on trips to Church with her current school and being friends with children of a range of different religions and beliefs, my daughter has always been full of questions about religion. While I give her the facts where they’re available, with this subject I try to help her reach her own conclusions. We’ve always said that if she wanted to follow a religion, we’d support that but from a pretty young age, she came to the conclusion that she didn’t believe in God. She does enjoy some Bible stories (although she’s found some pretty disturbing). At her school, there are children of different religions and she’s learnt a great deal about them (something I am very much in favour of).

Recently at Easter, as well as at previous Easters, I had to answer some rather difficult questions. She wanted to know how rabbits and chocolate eggs are connected with the story of Jesus. I told her they’re not really. The way Easter is celebrated in UK is very much a mixture of different traditions, stemming from different beliefs. Celebrating new life in Spring is an extremely old concept, much older than Christianity. I also told her that while Christians are celebrating Easter, Jews are celebrating Passover. We didn’t go into much detail with that but I’ve made a little note to maybe learn more about it next year. I have noticed that while she’s learnt a lot about Christianity plus a bit about Islam and Hinduism as school, she’s learnt pretty much nothing at all about Judaism, Buddhism or Sikhism. The concept of atheism hasn’t been mentioned at all and was met with confusion from her classmates when she told them she’s an atheist.

I will make clear now that I like my daughter’s school. We researched it, it was our first choice and we were happy when she got a place. For the most part, she’s been happy there and she’s making excellent progress in her education there. I like that she’s socialising with people of various backgrounds and faiths.

However, I have an issue with how non-faith schools in the UK are required to promote Christianity. I do not agree that ‘daily collective worship’ of a ‘broadly Christian character’ should be a part of the school day. I am uncomfortable with my child, either in school or on trips to churches, being told about Christian beliefs as fact. It is my opinion that education in school should be secular in nature. This isn’t just because I do not share these beliefs. This is because I feel children are not mature enough to think critically and form their own opinions, especially when their teachers (who they should be able to trust to give them facts) are actively promoting religious beliefs. From my experience as a parent, my child has regularly felt isolated and uncomfortable when told to take part in Christian worship in school. I did not ask her if she felt this way, she volunteered the information when I asked her why she was upset on coming home from school on several occasions. Logically, I can only think that she won’t be the only one.

Learning about religion is important. It helps us to understand and respect other people. It gives us a wider perspective of the world and helps us to see things from different points of view.

Celebrating traditional British holidays is also important, as well as enjoyable. As with Easter, people have been celebrating the Winter Solstice for far longer than Christianity has been around and a lot of the celebration of Christmas in UK reflects that. We’re not Christian but we celebrate Christmas, as do many other atheists and non-Christians. It’s a part of our national culture. Nativity plays are a great way of teaching children a key part of Christian belief. It’s also a story that children enjoy. Therefore, I see no problem with it. Certainly in my daughter’s school, they also put on celebrations for other religious holidays, such as Divali and Eid. I see that as a fun way to learn and again, see no problem with it.

If you want your child to have religious worship be a part of their school day, there are plenty of faith schools, covering different denominations of Christianity, as well as Islam and Judaism. You have that option. I, on the other hand, have no option at all to send my child to school where religious worship does not feature. I have friends who have given this as one of their reasons for home schooling their child. I considered it myself, although we instead decided on sending her to school but making sure she can form her own opinions and think critically about what she’s told – an important skill in all aspects of education.

I end this post by making something very clear. I have no issue with other people having religious beliefs. If a parent wishes to have their child follow a religion, that’s their choice and I respect that. However, I should have the choice to send my child to a genuinely non-religious school. While it’s a requirement for UK schools to have collective daily worship, that is not a choice I have.

Lets Talk About Puberty

Following on from my ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ post, today’s post is all about talking to children about puberty.

There is a little crossover between this subject and sex because puberty is essentially your body developing into adulthood and a lot of that is about developing the ability to reproduce. So for example, when my daughter asked where babies come from, the answer is about sex but might well (and in fact did) have follow up questions about how her body will change in order to grow a baby.

Talking about what life will be like when they’re grown ups is pretty normal for kids. Their future careers and lifestyle choices and often under discussion, although frequently changing as the child learns more about the adult world or simply changes their mind. The first time we had a real discussion about how her body would be different as a grown up came when my daughter saw me taking a sanitary pad from my desk drawer and asked what it was. I explained what it was and why, as a woman, I need one. I explained what a period was and why women have them. I explained that while they might not seem like a pleasant thing, periods are a sign that your body is functioning as it should.

A few more questions followed:

When would she start having them? Answer: Probably between 4 – 8 years from now (she’s 7). Girls start at different times, there’s nothing wrong with starting earlier or later.

So they can just start any time? You don’t get a warning? Answer: Yes but that’s ok because you’ll be ready whenever it does start. When you’re a little bit older, I’ll make sure there are always pads for you to use and you’ll know what’s going on because we’ve had this talk!

What does it feel like? Answer: Well, you can’t feel it happening exactly. But you might get an ache in your tummy. That’s unfortunately a pretty normal thing, although some women get it worse than others. You can use a hot water bottle to make it feel better or you can take a painkiller if it’s really hurting you.

That was about it for that conversation. She’s also asked me about when she’d ‘get boobs’. I said they’d probably start to grow at roughly the same time as her periods arrived but they can keep growing until she’s about 19.

As yet, we’ve not had any questions about puberty for boys. She knows they won’t have periods because their bodies don’t grow babies. I can only assume that at some point she’ll have some curiosity about how a boy develops into an adult too. Like sex, puberty is bound to be a subject discussed in the playground too. I distinctly remember a schoolfriend of mine telling me that when a lady decides she wants a baby, she has ‘pyramids’. The friend couldn’t tell me what a pyramid was or how they might help in making a baby and I was left pretty confused. Periods weren’t discussed with teachers at all and only when I was in Year 6 did a nurse come to talk with us about it. A friend of mine started the year before that, at age 9, and was totally panicked by it, having no clue what was going on. We were separated from the boys for the nurse’s visit and it was years into high school before we learnt about how puberty affects the opposite sex. I knew boys who had very little idea of what a period was. I guess my experience made me keen to make sure my daughter had all of the facts, although it’s possible that it almost two decades, things have moved on a bit!

Puberty is a big stage in anyone’s life. You’re changing in every way and it can all be a bit overwhelming, especially as your emotions can be pretty out of control. It’s my opinion that knowing what’s happening in your body well in advance is helpful in feeling more in control of it.

How are you handling telling your children about puberty? Did you wait for questions or take the lead to start a conversation?

 

 

 

Let’s Talk About Sex

The big talk. The birds and the bees. Where babies come from. It’s the conversation most parents dread. When their tiny innocent child looks up at them with their big angelic eyes and asks, ‘What is sex?’

Once upon a time, parents might have been able to put it off for longer. But now it’s talked about everywhere and your child hearing the word is pretty much inescapable. Pip was two years old when she asked us where babies come from. We told her they come from their Mummy’s tummy, where they grow. She accepted this readily.

It was  a few years later (thank goodness!) that she asked what sex was. I’m not quite sure where she first heard the term. As I said, it’s such a common subject that it’s quite difficult even to pinpoint where a five year old might have heard it. She could have overheard the news, a conversation in the street or indeed a conversation between myself and Husband that wasn’t really intended for her to hear (anyone else had that horrifically awkward moment when you’re discussing grown up stuff and you turn to find a child you had no idea was in the room, blinking up at you with a very confused look on their face?).

I find she asks about these things every now and then, perhaps a couple of times a year. It’s like she’s aware that she’s grown a little older and more knowledgeable and is ready for an update. She does glean a little more information each time. There have been issues I wrestled with. Commonly parents seem to tell their kids that sex is nothing more or less than how you get a baby. I can see the appeal of this explanation. It leaves out anything about adult relationships and sticks to something that can be explained in scientific terms. But this does not fit in well with our family rule of never telling our daughter lies, for that is what this is. Sex, for most adults, is not simply for reproduction. It’s an important aspect of most adult romantic relationships and it’s enjoyable! So I told her this. I didn’t go too much into the mechanics of the act, deciding instead to tell her that it’s ‘like a special cuddle only for grown ups’. Again, she seemed to just accept this and ended her line of questioning there.

Now she’s seven and getting to a stage where playground gossip is playing a part in the information she gets. I’ve made it clear that she can talk to me about anything a friend tells her, there’s no need to be embarrassed. Which is probably why a couple of weeks ago she asked me if grown ups have sex in the bath. Bearing in mind again that I don’t lie to her, I said yes, sometimes they do. I then asked where she’d gotten that idea from. She replied, ‘I don’t know. It definitely wasn’t [name of schoolfriend]!’ Aha.

I really think the key to these tricky issues is a balance of honesty and openness while keeping in mind what a child will understand at different ages. I might have skirted the sex in the bath question if a three year old had asked it, for example, and probably been far more concerned about where they’d heard such an idea.

Sex is a part of the adult world. It’s our job as parents to make sure our children are prepared for that world.

How do you handle questions about sex and adult relationships?