Textbook mummy

Two years ago I was in a meeting and it finally happened. After years of resistance I finally “turned”. I was working as an editor of educational materials and had been listening to some plans for a new school textbook. Suddenly, I opened my mouth and heard the words coming out, but it wasn’t really me who was talking:

Yes, definitely, I think that’s a great idea. Include something on sport, ideally football, that’ll definitely motivate the boys. And perhaps some logic puzzles rather than those “soft skills” exercises that girls are good at. Boys prefer a challenge.

I then shut my mouth and listened while everyone agreed with me. I then left the meeting wondering if anyone had noticed my sudden transformation from “trier” to “total wanker”.

Alas, this happens a lot these days. I exist on the boundary between liberal mummy and toe-the-line sexist. Or rather, there isn’t a boundary. There’s a chasm and I’m falling right into it.

As a mother of two boys, I’m a strong believer in non-sexist parenting. Gender stereotypes always seem a lot of effort to me. Yeah, just have a bloody Barbie doll, I don’t care. And you can play at unloading the dishwasher while you’re at it. Yes, that big one, with the life-sized plates. My boys have cars and dolls and swords and dresses, mainly cos that’s the kind of crazy shit anyone would want in their house, but also so that they get a broad perspective on all the roles that are available to them in life.

When I go to work, I’m launched into a world where extreme gender stereotyping is the norm. Only it doesn’t seem extreme to most people (although I guess that’s what “the norm” is). We speak uncritically of the “underachievement” of boys, of the need to stimulate their “special skills”, of their higher abilities in logic and their need for challenge. Girls, meanwhile, are the “overachievers”; coursework and controlled assessment have allowed them, the tortoises, to plod ahead of the boys. We need to give our hares a chance! (Although personally I prefer letting my hare down every once in a while.)

The fact that even before the introduction of GCSEs girls outperformed boys in exams is disregarded. The myth of the sloped playing field, with everything skewed in favour of girls, is horribly powerful. Everyone looks at the coursebooks and exam papers and frantically tries to rework them to get the “right answer”, the one that shows boys are best. No one looks beyond the paper to the massive world of gender prejudice and divisions, to the pressures that surely contribute to different results in the exam room. No one even looks ahead to a world where the ability to knuckle down and plod along might be what matters, if in fact that’s where we women excel. To be frank, all of this really pisses me off. Should education really be about getting statistics to justify the elevated position of men? Or should it be about teaching children to think, and feel, and gain pleasure in knowledge?

Clearly I want my boys to be successful in life and I worry that I’m a traitor to motherhood. Shouldn’t having boys have made me a bit more, well, sexist? Shouldn’t I just be looking out for them and seeking out any advantages I can gain for them? Perhaps. I don’t want them to tread over the female counterparts, or anyone else, to get ahead. And I want them to enjoy learning in the way that I have. So when I’m with them I pretend gender stereotyping in education won’t affect them at all.

Alas, it probably will. What if one of them is good at maths and is encouraged to associate this with his maleness? How will this affect his view of his female counterparts?  What if one of them struggles to read and gets put on a “boys'” reading scheme? Is that not telling him where his personal interests should lie (ie football, football and more sodding football)? It all starts so early. Sorry, mummy. Can’t talk to you and get dressed at the same time. Boys can’t multi-task. And I’m complicit in it all. Liberal mummy going out to help build the sexist world outside.

Well, at least I’m getting paid. I’ll spend the money on Barbie dolls and toy cars and books and perhaps even on the mortgage. And I’ll tell my boys they can be who they want to be. And if they’re not bothering to listen, I’ll engage them with a football analogy and a logic puzzle.


10 thoughts on “Textbook mummy

  1. I have a boy and a girl. The girl actually fits some stereotypes (loves dolls, etc) but is a really outdoorsy adventurer as well. My son doesn’t love football, but neither does he love fairies and make-up! I find it so frustrating that the stereotyping is so narrow.

    1. Me too! And absolutely anything can be used as “evidence” to prove the stereotypes e.g. he’s quiet = he’s not sociable like girls are, he’s noisy = he’s boisterous etc. etc.

  2. I found your blog via that INFURIATING Guardian article about Commando Dad, and I have no comments on this particular article, but I wanted to tell you I’m reading your blog now. This comment suddenly sounds weirder than I meant it to. Ah well. Fuck it.

  3. I sat next to a teenage boy at dinner last week (erm, as one does) and he quizzed me about my A-levels and so forth. It has been a good 20 years since anybody showed an interest in my A levels, and he told me that I had done well at maths “because women are good at concentrating”. So there you go.
    (Not sure what my point is, just kind of wanted to say hello I am reading your blog too 🙂 )

    1. Hello! Lovely to receive your comments!
      BTW, did this boy have exams coming up by any chance? Don’t want to be cynical, but just wondering if this was laying the groundwork for some “biological” excuse for not having done enough revision…

  4. Oh, it annoys me so much. I work in educational publishing, too, though as a supplier these days, rather than in-house. When I was in-house, I made a point of changing case studies so to reduce the gender and racial stereotypes as much as possible and no-one else seemed to care. It now seems to be official policy from most of the publishers (at least, from the house style guides) and yet, when I edit something, there’s usually still a string of stereotypes in there (not that there should necessarily be none whatsoever, of course).

    I have two daughters and we make sure they have cars, swords, footballs and other ‘male’ toys. We make sure they believe they can do anything. We make sure they believe their male friends can do anything – yes, they can dress up in the dresses rather than the pirate costumes if they want to, yes, they can play with the dolls… But, still, the eldest comes home now and asks ‘Am I a tom boy?’ and says ‘I don’t like blue. It’s for boys.’ Aaaaaaarghhh!!

    1. I used to work for a publisher that had a big US market, and we’d get told to include “diverse” families in photos, but never same-sex couples as that wouldn’t get sold in Wal-Mart or Texas or wherever. It was so depressing – “we’ll “do” diversity when it sells, but when it comes down to it, you’ve got to chase the bigot dollar (or whatever one might call it)”. I never had to write these photo briefs myself. But I know I probably would have.

      1. We had to change a picture in a childcare book once, because it had a child dressed up as a devil (fancy dress day – not suggesting the child was a devil). Eek!

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