I’m the proud auntie of five wonderful nieces and three fabulous nephews. And if you add the three nieces I gained from marrying, then you can see that’s a lot of birthday presents each year!
I mention these people because (good aunt that I am) I’ve just returned from my nieces’ dance concert. Miss 3 and Miss 5 (nearly 6!) were proud to display their ballet skills. With their glittery hair and swishy dresses, they both looked like little princesses – and they knew it. These concerts are a riot, because the very little ones simply have no idea what they are doing. Some have the rabbit-in-headlight look on stage, others overperform. Many just struggle to remember what the heck they are supposed to be doing, and require a gentle prompt from an assistant to twirl or do the next move. At the end of the number, there’s always one kid frozen on stage when the others are thumping off, and the older girl pretends its part of the act as she pirouettes towards the recalcitrant one and shepherds her off. The Awww factor was High!
There were probably eighty or so kids in total, from about 12 classes. Two of whom were boys, and both of whom were the brothers of girls who were regular troupers. The Billy Elliots looked preschool age, and unlikely to have learnt that boys who dance rarely get looked on favourably at school.
My two younger sons came to the concert, as there was no way that Mr 9 was going to watch ballet. Mr 7 thoroughly enjoyed it, he loves music and rhythm and appreciated the story that each of the acts told. He was given the option to leave as soon as his cousin’s piece had finished, but chose to stay to the end (Mr 5 started to nod-off half way). But when I asked Mr 7 if he wanted to learn dance, he responded with a horrified “no way!”. And, yes, there was some relief on my part.
My boys learn Tae Kwan Do. The moves they learn are probably as demanding as the ballet steps, and as rhythmical (but sadly, no music is involved). Both sports are great exercises, build strength and flexibility, and challenge them to learn self-discipline and body awareness. Both provide kids with the opportunity to build self-esteem as a result of mastering a centuries-old discipline.
There’s a minority of girls in the Tae Kwan Do class, probably a third, and I think it’s great that girls are being encouraged to learn to defend themselves. I wish I’d had a chance as a child. But on reflection about what my son and I had discussed, I felt uncomfortable. Martial arts are about asserting yourself. Ballet is about pleasing others. It’s ok for girls to take ownership of their bodies through self-defence, but not ok for boys to view their bodies as a means of self expression.
Before I had kids, I imagined that I would minimize sexual stereotyping in my own children, but I realise that has not happened. And my own stereotypical views are more ingrained than I thought. As a result, my gentle, artistic 7 year old boy has well and truly internalised the cultural messages about gender role. Nobody had to tell him “ballet is for girls”, he learnt that all by himself.
Subtle messages are directed at children daily. As a wannabe writer for kids, I need to scrutinise what I am saying in my narratives – or showing. Am I colluding with societal expectations, or am I challenging them? Are there better ways to challenge stereotypes than with a “Sally Soccer Star” type story with an overt message?
Is this something other kids’ writers worry about?