Here's a thought: Instead of filling your daughter's head with nonsensical fairytales, how about filling it with real-world facts—science!—and see if you can't foster a love for a subject that's still and notoriously more encouraged in boys. This is the subject of an essay by Wendy Thomas Russell at PBS NewsHour, and it is a great idea. Mostly.
Russell writes about her lifelong disinterest in science—a result of bad teachers, the inaccessibility of the subject and what she assumed was a missing brain function that made it hard for her to connect with the material. She concluded that she simply "wasn't good" at math and science, something familiar to a lot of people (ahem: a lot of women).
But she didn't want her daughter to meet the same fate, so she did what any science-averse heterosexual woman who might have a daughter one day could so easily do: She married a guy, Charlie, who knows and loves science so intimately that he could teach it to their daughter Maxine, by taking everyday science drawn from news and spinning it into fascinating, world-expanding, age-appropriate tales of discovery and adventure, producing a daughter who today loves science as much as any boy! How amazing! Now you'll all go out and do it too.
Okay, I'm being a little sarcastic. Though you might not guess this from Russell's piece, we can't all run out and get ourselves a science husband, nor can all of us find a way to make, say, hedge funds sound intriguing if we just work on our narrative yarn-weaving skills. But that doesn't make her point any less good and honorable and true.
One night Charlie took our tree-stump cutting board into Max's room. Stump in hand, he explained how each ring signified one year in the life of a tree. Then he told Maxine the story, which he'd originally heard on NPR's Radiolab, about how a climatologist cut down a tree for research — only to find that the tree was 4,400 years old. "That's 4,400 rings," Charlie told Maxine. "Not only was it the oldest tree in the world, it was the oldest living thing." He told her that no other continuously living organism had come close to living as long as that tree had lived. The climatologist, heartsick and haunted by his own mistake, never cut down another tree as long as he lived.
I couldn't see Maxine's reaction, but I, for one — listening through the door — was riveted.
Today, a mere two years later, Maxine loves science. Far from being bored or confused, she is mesmerized by her Daddy's "science stories" and always up for hearing another.
For the record, I'm riveted too. And she's right: If you want a daughter (or son) to be well-rounded and truly have a shot at doing or being anything in this world, particularly things that transcend gender stereotypes, you're going to have to expose her or him to all those things one way or another whether they are in your comfort level or not.
This, of course, exposes all our weaknesses as parents. I for one am not too jazzed about the day I will be helping with geometry homework, because I spaced out the first semester writing notes to my friend Leanne and never learned how to do a proof. But you pull your head out of your ass and make it happen because this is your kid and you don't fuck around, dig? (Basically, my parenting philosophy in a nutshell.)
And in fairness, marrying someone who's good at stuff you're not is perfectly possible: I myself married a car-fixing resourceful type, in part because I was the opposite. And I have to give props: He is responsible for teaching our daughter all sorts of things that I don't understand— they have built robots and furniture, discuss simple physics and engine basics, and I am literally learning alongside her about subjects I was only peripherally aware of in the first place, probably just because I was in shitty public schools in the South where you were passed to the next grade for having shoes on.
But even without any specialized knowledge in the family, you can still buy or check out random books at the library you'd never have thought of, because an upside to the way having kids exposes the breadth (or lack thereof) of your knowledge is that you can still learn all sorts of stuff you never did or totally forgot. It's a second chance, given vicariously through your children, and it is awesome. I couldn't have given even a fourth-grade level book report worth of info on Sacagawea until we bought an early reader book on the subject. Girl walked 4,500 miles on foot when she was 16, carrying a baby! When we read through a beautifully illustrated book about Marie Curie, Radioactive, I was as intrigued as my daughter all over again.
The sooner you do this with your kids, the better, before the cultural stranglehold takes place where everything not-for-girls or not-for-boys is banished from their room. And again, it's not difficult. You can always introduce your kid to things that go against what's typically fed to them. You don't have to be a Science Genius to buy a kid-level book about bugs and read it dutifully every night (we do, and my almost-five-year-old daughter loves it). I'm sure you have a good story about a gross spider you can drop in there to enhance the tale for real-world value, no entomologist husband needed. (Tricked ya! Spiders aren't insects, which is something I had to Google. They are studied by arachnologists.)
Where I disagree with Russell is on the idea that you have to "skip the fairytales." I think you can cultivate a spirit of independence in young girls without totally ditching fairytales, which are helpful in their own way. They are cultural artifacts, they exist in nearly every language in some form or another; they are cautionary tales, can be as gross and weird as spiders, and sometimes work as really good examples of what not to do.
I think in an effort to rightly deconstruct how damaging gender stereotypes can be, we have a tendency to diminish anything associated with girls, as if we'd all be better off doing only what boys do. This is why it's still easier for a woman to be into bugs than it is for a man to be into dresses. But it's not helping anyone. There are arguments for and against still reading fairytales to children, and I'm well aware of them. And this may sound lazy, but it's true: They are in the water and nearly unavoidable, so I'd rather address my child's interest in them and use it as an opportunity to discuss the problems therein then put my energy into banning them. I'm also against the princess-free household, it goes without saying, because dressing up is fun! Royalty is fun! It can be expanded upon, and it should not be the only source of imaginative play, but it is not poison, either.
The real solution to rigid gender coding is not to get rid of Barbies or princesses, or try to make them into boys' toys. It's to no longer associate any toys as exclusively for boys or girls, so that playing dress-up, caring for babies, going on adventures, or being little scientists is encouraged in all children. Because boys are not innately more interested in bugs, science, mysteries, or gross stuff any more than they are interested automatically in guns. I have been told the opposite time and time again by parents and teachers who think they've figured this out: He just picked up his hands and made a gun shape, they marvel, and we never let him watch violent cartoons! They just act different!
And absolutely, they often do act different. But parents often heavily discount what we have done from moment one, which is live in the world. This means your kid is practically bathed in gender coding from the moment of birth, if not conception, and research shows that parents and teachers and other gatekeepers react drastically different to boys and girls, nudging them directly or otherwise along gender-compliant paths, literally down to the toys and subjects they can show an interest in or the types of feelings they are allowed to express.
Anyway, the ideas really stay with you from childhood are probably a lot more unpredictable—and gender-fluid—than we think, particularly when it comes to books. The book from my childhood that's always stuck the most with me is Roald Dahl's The Twits, because of the worm spaghetti. And maybe Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective books, too.
We, and our interests, are all a product of a world full of strict gender constructions. But it's entirely possible to thwart this to the best of our abilities by exposing children to a variety of things, and telegraphing that all interests are worth pursuing. So yes, work in the science for girls, by all means, but there's no reason to throw the fairytales out with the science water.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.