What it means to be a boy or a girl?

Ambika Shaligram
Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Children’s bookstore owner Ritu Vaishnav, through her picture book,  emphasises that no childhood can be restricted to two colours — pink and blue

Through their book, Pink and Blue, Ritu Vaishnav and illustrator Vishnu Nair make a wonderful effort to address the stereotypes that exist when it comes to rearing boys and girls. The picture book, published by Puffin, begins the gender conversation with ‘Girls like pink. Boys like blue’. In the next two pages, it makes a case for boys who might like pink and girls who are enchanted by blue. And, then they throw this colour code to the wind, by saying ‘...they are both great colours...just like red, yellow, green and all the rest!’

As kids, we have all been told not to ‘cry like a girl’ or that ‘boys are tough’. Very simply, Vaishnav, a children’s book store owner, says, ‘Both boys and girls can cry. We all cry when we are hurt, and we all get hurt sometimes.’ And, so on...

In a chat with Vaishnav, we ask her when should we start this gender conversation with kids and how she herself is bringing up her boy, Parth. 

More from the author...

How was your childhood? Was it strictly defined by the colour ‘pink’?
I’ll have to say I was a very stereotypically ‘girly’ girl, even though there was no pressure to be one! Now that I think about it, I may have been the only one in my house trying to adhere to a gender stereotype! I liked dresses and dolls and yes, pink, and insisted on keeping my hair long even though my parents loved cutting it short. I did like guns though. But those were just little details, I suppose. 

In the larger scheme of things, I feel very fortunate that my family raised me to be my own person rather than a ‘woman’. There was a lot of freedom to explore one’s individuality and make one’s own choices. I also grew up around very strong women. I doubt anyone would risk asking my mum or grand mum to confirm to any stereotype. I realised much later in life that one was actually expected to be/act/think/feel a certain way by the world, outside my house, just because of one’s gender. Such expectations continue to feel rather bizarre, because I was always taught to think like me, rather than a generic member of a particular gender.   

How old is Parth, your baby dragon? How early should we start teaching the children that it’s fun doing tasks together. That there are no ‘tasks for girls’ or ‘tasks for boys’?
The baby dragon is six now. I think kids as young as two or three can be engaged in simple tasks like picking up their toys or putting plates on the table. I don’t see why gender should have any say in assigning these tasks. It is much easier to teach them that there are no ‘girl tasks’ or ‘boy tasks’, if they see both their parents taking turns doing these tasks around the house.

In the urban scenario at least, the educated working couple might not believe in gender stereotypes. But what about people around them, who are also a part of their child’s world — like the nanny, maid, cook, or the security guard? These people might not read your book. How does one deal with them? And, teach your kids to take what they say with a pinch of salt?
As much as we’d like, we can’t really control and fix the world around our kids. We can only teach them how to navigate it, make sense of it and respond to it. No matter what we do, our kids will get these messages reinforcing gender stereotypes at some point. I feel the messages that stick the strongest at this age though are the ones that come from their parents. That’s why conversations are a fabulous parenting tool. 

Talk to them. Know what’s going on in their mind and in the world around them. Have a conversation. Offer logic. Teach them how to think. Say someone tells your boy, ‘Don’t cry like a girl’. It’s a fabulous opportunity to teach him why that statement is unreasonable and illogical. Show him alternative examples — sports stars that cry on the field, perhaps. Talk to him about all the times daddy or grandpa have cried and how that’s perfectly fine, how everyone gets hurt at some point and anyone can cry when they are hurt and that’s alright. The next time someone makes that statement, he’ll know how to process it. These are ongoing conversations that carry on throughout their growing years and perhaps beyond. 

Do you have another picture book coming out that will elaborate more on this story?
There might be more books, but nothing specifically on this subject at the moment. However, I am doing some sessions in schools with children as well as some with teachers and parents trying to emphasise the need for initiating an early and lasting dialogue with our children about gender stereotypes. 

If we really want to work towards gender equality and a world free from rigid gender roles and expectations, we have to start talking to our children about these things now, at an age when they are starting to develop ideas about what it means to be a boy or a girl.

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