If you had told me ten years ago that I’d be taking my daughter to a fun farm and watching her play with toy John Deere vehicles in a corn bin, I would’ve told you that you were crazy. Ten years ago I was living in Manhattan and I doubt I would’ve put the words corn and bin in the same sentence. (Unless, of course, it would’ve been “Please buy me more candy corn from the bin on the bulk foods aisle.”) Fast forward to yesterday and I was watching my daughter play with delight in the corn bin at a local family fun farm.
We took three separate trips to the corn bin during our time at the farm. The second time something really unexpected happened. I found myself defending Isabelle’s right to use a boy bucket in the corn bin. Here’s what happened.
My daughter was playing with a John Deere tractor and a blue action heroes bucket inside of the corn bin when a group of little boys entered the corn bin. One of the boys marched right over to Isabelle and tried to snatch the bucket she was playing with. Since she doesn’t have the words to defend her inalienable right to use the bucket, I stepped in to be her voice.
“She’s playing with that bucket. You may play with that one,” I said pointing to a second, unused bucket on the opposite end of the corn bin.
The boy turned and wrinkled his nose. “That bucket is for girls. This bucket,” he said as he bent over towards Isabelle, “is for boys.”
“These buckets are for everyone,” I said putting my hand in-between him and the bucket.
“But that one is pink and has princesses. It’s a girl bucket!” he said angrily.
“Both of the buckets are for everyone. Boys and girls can play with both buckets,” I said firmly.
He started getting louder. “I want that bucket!” he said pointing towards Isabelle who didn’t seem to understand what the fuss was all about.
Just then one of the little boy’s friends dove across the corn bin and grabbed the pink princess bucket and began dumping corn into it.
“See,”I said calmly. “He’s playing with that bucket. The buckets are for everyone.”
I really wanted to see the expression on my husband’s face, but he was standing off to my right, and I didn’t dare take my eyes off of the little boy who looked like he was going to grab the bucket away from Isabelle (and probably wanted to throw corn in my face by this point!).
The little boy stamped his foot and whined at which point his grandmother got involved. She called his name, “Devin*!” (Name has been changed.)
He stamped his foot in the corn again. I stood there and watched, wondering what she’d do next.
“Devin! Play nice or you’ll have to come here.”
Seriously? That’s the response!
He looked down and stamped his foot one more time. Thankfully the corn kernels didn’t fly too far.
“Devin! She’s playing with that bucket now. Find something else to play with.”
Really? Really!?!!? Why didn’t she tell him to wait his turn or to play with the pink bucket in the first place?
Meanwhile, Isabelle kept playing in the corn bin ’til we encouraged her to go to the straw castle at which point Devin swooped in and grabbed the blue, boy bucket.
* * * * *
We returned to the corn bin 15 – 20 minutes later and found Devin and his cousin playing with the blue boy bucket on the other end of the corn bin. He looked up, saw me, and turned his back. Isabelle began playing with the pink bucket, which wasn’t being used, and a tractor. Once Devin saw Isabelle wasn’t a threat to his blue bucket, he slowly turned his body towards us. Once we we got up to leave, I said “good-bye” to him and his family and so did Isabelle. He said, “Say bye to my pop-pop!” And so I did.
But I was left wondering this: Did Devin learn anything today? It’s doubtful. In order to challenge stereotypes and expand gender notions, children need to see these things modeled in their daily lives. Isabelle was content to play with the trucks and the the blue action figures bucket because she has toys like this at home. She plays with stuffed animals and has a dollhouse too. However, she knows that she can play with a variety of toys.
When I was reflecting on this situation last night, I sat in my office wondering what I can do, as a parent, to help other kids realize that toys and colors are for everyone. Change like this is much easier when you’re a teacher rather than just another kid’s parent. Do I just have to start with my small corner of the world (i.e., my kid) and hope other people will do the same… eventually?