Gender Inequality in Children’s Literature

I was recently on a plane, chatting with the man sitting next to me.  He told me he had a little girl who loved to read, and mentioned several books she had devoured lately.  He said he said was always looking for new books for her, and asked me for recommendations.  I gave him several, and then asked about his son, who he had also mentioned to me earlier.  “Oh, he’s not so into books,” was the reply.  “The occasional comic book, but there aren’t many books he actually likes, much less finishes.”  I went to recommend a few books that might help his son enjoy reading a little more, and realized I had very few ideas for him.  I mentioned the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, the Boxcar Children series, and Choose-Your-Own Adventure books.  He was surprised I had any recommendations at all, and made notes of them in his phone.

For many years, there has been an overwhelmingly positive push for books for young girls.  It’s become a tremendous, commendable mass effort on the part of writers and publishers alike, and I love that when I walk into a bookstore, I see great titles and characters like Madeline, Amelia Bedelia, Olivia, Judy Moody, Imogene, etc.  And of course there are classics like Matilda, Little House on the Prairie, The American Girl books, Harriet the Spy, and so many others.  I remember reading so many books as a little girl and learning about social interaction, history and culture, vocabulary and creative language usage (Black Beauty is written from the 1st person perspective of a horse.  Nine-year-old me was BESIDE HERSELF.).  Books contain not only stories that drive imagination and wonder, but also developmental content that’s so important.  While we’ve achieved our goal of crafting uplifting and encouraging content for our young girls, we’ve created a problem.

When you Google, “Best Children’s Books for Girls,” this is the result:

googlegirlsbooks

When you Google, “Best Children’s Books for Boys,” this is the result:

googleboysbooks

This brings to light an interesting problem: in our focus on encouraging, educating, and uplifting girls, we’ve developed some tunnel vision and have forgotten about the boys.  I’m talking about books and stories specifically tailored for boys, not gender neutral books that can be enjoyed by all kids, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid (which, I might add, is about a boy protagonist who is not only “wimpy,” but generally a screw-up).  If we’re going to give girls the Disney Princess books, why don’t the Disney Princes get books?  There’s an absolute cavern of possibilities for “Disney Prince” books, because they don’t have backstories already established.  Why can’t we have a book series called “Wood Shop Wilson,” about a kid who solves problems through building awesome stuff, or “Undercover Andy,” a boy detective who solves neighborhood mysteries a la The Hardy Boys?  I believe the root of this problem is two-fold.

First, the fact of the matter is, writing for girls is cake.  It’s easy to write meaningful stories for girls, because girls have more interests to be creative with.  You can put a girl protagonist into almost any environment, and girls will think it’s really cool so long as the storyline is interesting enough.  You can make her royalty, or an astronaut, or a mermaid, or a schoolgirl in another time period, a cowgirl, a sharp-shooting Annie Oakley, or a high-flying Amelia Earhart.   You can essentially just spin the wheel, because there’s an infinite number of plot/protagonist/environment combinations that will capture and keep the interest of little girls.  Boys, however, require a different kind of interest and encouragement.  Frankly, it’s harder to keep them entertained, so it requires a different method of storytelling.  It requires a new, and more intentional way of story-crafting that no one seems willing to bother with.  Bob the Builder only cuts it for so long.  As they grow and develop, our boys need literature that will grow with them, and provide them with the same kind of lessons that we’ve poured so much heart and effort into for our girls.

The second factor will be a largely unpopular opinion, I imagine: the lack of decent literature for boys falls at least partially to the fault of the cultural emasculation of young boys.  While we never want young boys to embrace fighting, violence, or needless destruction, I find it a grave mistake to assume we can reprogram those tendencies out of our young men.  There is a significant difference between encouraging boys to develop good habits to control those tendencies, and encouraging boys to be more like girls in demeanor.  Boys need male role models that teach them it’s OK to be a boy, and to like dirt, explosions, speed, risks, etc.  But those same role models need to be the ones to show them the consequences of liking those things, and how to enjoy them in a moderated and safe manner.  I’d like to see a boy’s book where a young man dares his younger brother to jump off the roof, and the younger brother breaks his arm.  That book can still have a happy ending, and can wrap up with a lot of hugging, apologies, and forgiveness.  But it’s a valuable lesson in considering the safety of others, and the price of some kinds of fun.  These are the kinds of lessons boys need, and they’re the kind of stories that will hook boys from beginning to end.  Give a boy a book about survival on a long-term sea voyage – teach them about the importance of preparedness, and how adventures sometimes don’t go how you planned them.  Give a boy a book about asking someone to the school dance – teach them about polite and fun social interaction.  Give a boy about a book about trying out for the football team – teach them about rejection, and how to handle it gracefully.  Give a boy a book about how sometimes it’s OK to break the rules if it’s to take care of another person – teach them good judgment and independent thought.  Give boys books that cater to them, and the way they’re wired.

nonreaders

I’ve heard it said too often that if a young boy doesn’t like reading, it’s just because he’s lazy, or thinks books are boring, or doesn’t want to try.  It is my opinion that child has just not been given the right book.  As the parents, writers, and publishers of the world, why have we given up on them so quickly?  Why do we consider it their fault, when it is firmly our responsibility to guide and encourage?  Why are we not crafting literature they will love, and that will kick-start their literacy in the same way we’ve done for girls?  Why do we treat them as hopeless cases when we’ve only been giving them books that were likely written to entice and encourage girls?  Even when they get older, they’re faced with popular YA series like Hunger Games, Twilight, etc.  “Oh, but there’s politics in The Hunger Games! That’s interesting,” you say.  Sure, but the male characters in many of these books are essentially just romantic options for the female protagonists.  That sucks.  I wouldn’t want to read that either.  Emotions are being manipulated in very specific ways in many YA series, and boys a) are already uncomfortable with their emotions and don’t want to touch that with a ten-foot pole, and b) aren’t as heavily affected by the emotional drama that’s being manufactured (often poorly, in my opinion).  Don’t even get me started on The Fault in Our Stars.  If you break it down: those books are written in a style that is more interesting and effective for girls.

While there are some great books out there for boys, they are few and far between, and don’t get even half of the publicity and praise that girls’ books do.  I also believe many of them are classics, and it’s hard to get kids to read classics when they hate reading in the first place.  Not to mention, the younger boys, maybe ages 5-9, often aren’t developmentally at an appropriate level to read Narnia or Sherlock Holmes yet.  There needs to be a concentrated effort for our little guys.  They need books that work with their brains, and their interests, and their difficulties.  Writers and publishers, we have a new challenge.

 

 

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The Childless Choice

“Your biological clock is ticking…”

Yes, thanks.  I’m nearing 30, and there’s no possible way I could have ever been told that before.  The choice to have children is a discussion that I believe is far more complicated than simply, “she doesn’t want children” or “she can’t have children,” which seem to be the only two avenues society can conceive for the milestone of procreation.  I can only speak about the former, because I don’t pretend to have any expertise or view for the kind of emotional wracking that wanting children, but not being able to conceive your own, must bring.  Have you ever considered, perhaps, that it is permissible for a woman to not know if she wants children?  No one seems to be willing to consider the major factors and consequences into that choice, instead condensing the argument into a variety of blister-packed judgments.  The inevitable: “Oh, you’ll change your mind some day.”  The threat: “You’ll regret it.”  The pushiness-disguised-as-encouragement: “But you’d be such a great Mom!”

Here’s the thing: I am not the only thing standing in my way.  Men have to — not “should,” not “it would be nice if,” not “as long as they pay child support” — have to have equal stock in the parenting game.  The largest concern that many single women have these days is not whether or not they will have children, but whether or not they will be able to find a man who will support them in that endeavor.  So before you ask me again if I’m ever going to have children, or why I don’t want them, or what makes me hate them so much, or suggest that I’m just scared of the pain of childbirth — consider these factors first.

 

The Example

I need a man who is supportive and committed to me, first, in order to prove that he will be a good father.  It would not be difficult for me to find a man who has the proper equipment required to make a child.  But it requires a much more particular process to find someone who would cherish me first, and then our children.  In the dating world, I have come across absolute hordes of men who say they’re excited to have children one day, and that they like kids, and will teach them to fish, and camp, and scrutinize the game of football.  And yet, these men are unable to make plans farther than 6 hours out from the present moment.  Some of them make a habit of showing up to dinner 45 minutes late, just as I’m gathering my things to leave.  Some of them are fine with being punctual, but have such drastic emotional insecurity that they’re unable to have a conversation about anything that’s not video games, or the shelves of Star Wars memorabilia that adorn their bachelor pads.  Some of that emotional insecurity throws them into a pit of people-pleasing behavior, or into child-like tantrums, or sometimes they just shut down entirely.  Some of them are perfectly confident, and funny, and wonderful — but require any plans to be at the mercy of their work schedule, causing 4 out of 6 dates to be “rain checked.”  I just recently went on a few dates with a man who is very kind and intelligent, but extremely aloof in conversation, causing me to have to “manufacture” any fun that was had for the both of us.  He would laugh at my jokes and stories, and then the table would go silent until I either came up with another funny something to say, or a conversation topic he was comfortable with.  If we can’t even have a normal conversation in a quiet restaurant, how could we have a normal conversation with a child shouting Barney songs at the dinner table?

Quite frankly, the relationship/marriage comes first, both chronologically and in priority.  If a man is not able to communicate with me, respect me, have fun with me, and maintain a healthy emotional state for himself, what kind of message is he going to send impressionable children?  I don’t want my children growing up with constant disappointment because “Daddy can’t make it to your dance recital/baseball game…again.”  Or, “Daddy doesn’t really mean to yell and call people names — why don’t you go play in your room for a while?”  Or, “Daddy isn’t ignoring everyone else, he’s just a little shy.”  The other kicker about having children with a man who isn’t stable is that I am automatically everyone’s Mom/therapist.  I am forced to “have conversations” or “nag” or any other tactic to try and get the father of my children to set a good example.  That, on top of trying to explain my husband’s behavior to my children in a tactful way that doesn’t include the actual truth.  No thanks.  “Having children” isn’t the real question for many women who are getting older and haven’t taken the plunge yet.  It’s “mutual parenting” that becomes the larger worry.  I will not agree to have children unless I marry a man who I trust to fully respect and care for me first, who is able to care for our children when I’m not around, and will fill in the holes in their development that I can’t.  I’ve been told by many to just “give him a chance,” or assured that he’ll grow up or change, as though the Menopause Train is bearing down on me and I should really just get on with it, lest I be run over.  Really?  Is that a gamble you would make with your children?

 Kids Kind of Suck

My best friend has two kids.  They’re awesome, loving, funny little people.  But they’re gross, and needy, and socially tactless, too.  All children kind of suck in a lot of ways, and I require a partner who is going to jump into the fray, and tired-laugh with me as we clean poop off the walls.  I have not yet found a man who I believe would be willing to launder vomit-covered bedsheets so I could take a shower and get the barf out of my hair after caring for a sick child.  I have not yet found a man who I believe would walk up and down the hallway with a screaming infant for 4 hours, without being prompted or begged, so that his wife could have a break or a nap.  I also find that many men begrudge having to spend time alone with their children, and go so far as to consider it “babysitting.”

You want to have kids?  Great.  Then you are signing up for the ride of a lifetime, and your contract states that you do not get to hide in your mancave when Little Timmy has the runs.  Too bad.

 The Ultimate Label of “Mom”

Next time you see a Mom, ask her when was the last time she got to do something for herself.  Her response will probably be something like, “Oh, I got to have a cup of tea last Wednesday — it was lovely.”  It will be said playfully, but for many women, there’s a deep amount of pain attached to those jokes.  I fully realize that having children is a massive sacrifice, but many women find themselves in a situation where it becomes a sacrifice of who they are as a person, an individual.  Many women go years without a break, without a weekend, without even an afternoon to themselves to do whatever they want.  They feel they no longer have that kind of intangible “permission” to have hobbies, and to want to see new things.  Women are not good at saying, “I would like to go do this for myself.”  We need a partner who is going to recognize when we need a break, and offer it to us willingly, without making us wait until we’re at the breaking point of our sanity.  Many women carry an intense, crippling level of guilt when it comes to asking for things they know are necessary for their own health.  I don’t know why, but we do.  And without a husband who will pay a little attention to our state of mind, and remember who we were before the kids came into play, it’s a slippery slope that will lead many women directly into a bog of depression and complete depletion of self-worth.  We become consumed by the label of “Mom.”  We’re no longer “Laura, ” or “Charlotte,” or “the woman who double majored in biochem and engineering,” or “the woman who loved to go to Sunday brunch once a month,” or “the woman who really hates restaurants that allow you to throw peanut shells on the floor,” or “the woman who’s actually an incredible dancer,” or “the woman who hopped 5 countries in two weeks, ” or “the woman who fell in love with you.”  We are the mother of our children, and are seen as nothing else, and we allow it because we feel guilty.

Some of us are terrified of the idea of having children, yes — but not because we don’t think we’d be good mothers or because we’re scared the pain and nausea.  We’re scared of not having a support system, having to beg our husbands for help because we haven’t slept in two days, being looked at differently by our husbands because our bodies are no longer as attractive as they once were.  We are terrified of becoming just another frumpy Mom who gave her soul for the sake of her children, whose past accomplishments now mean nothing, and whose future accomplishments will be saving enough money to send the kids to college.  And we know that without support from our husbands, that’s exactly what we will become as we slowly forget who we once were.

 He Doesn’t Want Kids…

…but I love him.  It’s fully possible that I might find a man who is my perfect match in every way, but who does not want children.  As mentioned before, the relationship and the marriage come first.  If we’re happy and it’s a conversation that we’ve had, I see no reason to kick him to the curb.  I realize that some women want children badly, and that’s great — that can be a very specific criterion in her dating life.  But I do not believe in hoping my prince will someday change his mind, and am open to the possibility of a very happy life that does not involve children.  It’s possible, I promise.  Oh, but you’ll regret not having children! they say.  Fine, maybe we will.  But do you regret not seeing the world’s wonders, lunching under the Eiffel Tower, walking through the tulip fields of Holland, seeing the Pyramids, or SCUBA diving in the Mediterranean with your husband?  Maybe you do.  Do you regret not joining a book club, or learning a new language or how to ski, having quiet nights next to a fireplace, or going on road trips with your husband?  Maybe you do.

 

So when a woman answers your questions about children with some trepidation or uncertainty — cool your jets.  We are not dumb.  We are not ignorant.  More than likely, the woman you’re interrogating is far smarter and more mature than you realize, and she is considering whether or not her world is a good one to bring children into.  We’re ok biding our time until the right situation presents itself to make a decision.  And until that happens, we’re not going to have an answer for you.