It was the Barbie cards that really got me worried. My toddler daughter received them as a gift for Christmas. She loves to play “Snap”, and it is an educational game, so in principle I approved. “Snap” teaches children patterns and matching, and trains quick reflexes.
But did the Snap cards have to be Barbie figures? Did they have to be so girlish and sexualised, so blatantly pink? Here was Barbie in a pink dress, here she was with pink hair, here was Barbie with a tiara, here she was wearing the kind of heavy make-up otherwise seen only on drag queens.
I worried out loud to a friend - a mother of two boys and a later, surprise girl - that as a feminist I didn’t know how to stem the tide of girlishness.
My toddler loves dolls, wants to wear only pink and is obsessed with Frozen. I also like her to wear dresses and Mary-Janes, I admit it. I bought her an Ikea kitchen for Christmas, because she loves pretending to cook. For months I have been scouring the web for a doll’s house for her third birthday. Why? Because I loved doll’s houses as a girl. I knew I was probably a hypocrite.
“Am I just perpetuating gender stereotypes here? “ I asked my friend.
“Should I be giving her space Lego or encouraging her to play with …I don’t know…”
I couldn’t even name a single boys’ toy.
Then my friend said something very powerful: she said that when her two boys were little, she had not once had a conversation with anyone about how they should be raised.
No one had offered her an opinion, not based on their gender anyway. She had never been told not to stereotype them, or to enrol them in ballet as well as soccer, to give them Barbie Snap cards to balance them out.
“It was only when I had a girl that people started telling me I needed to raise her in a certain way, to not perpetuate stereotypes,” she said.
“Actually I think it’s the little boys who need to grow up a bit differently.”
The conversation has stuck with me - partly because it relieved my guilt, but also because it flipped my thinking.
Of course there are certain things my girl has to know because she is a girl.
I will (try to) teach her both the principle and the realpolitick of operating as a female in a world which can be hostile to us.
But maybe it is time to switch the conversation.
This month New York Magazine carried a story on “How To Raise a Boy”, in which the author discussed the tension between wanting an equal society - which means privileged white men have to give some ground to other groups who have historically enjoyed less inherent advantage - and the fact that he is raising two privileged white boys whom he loves very much.
How does he help them advance themselves while making sure they don’t develop a sense of entitlement?
The conversation around raising boys has become especially potent in wake of the latest school shooting in the US, in Parkland, Florida. The shooter was yet another alienated angry young boy who had grown up fatherless.
There is a reason why masculinity gurus like the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson have developed a cult following - it’s because the rules on masculinity are being re-written, but inconsistently, and boys struggle to keep up with all the varying expectations.
I don’t know how to raise a boy, and I don’t have to find out.
But I do know something that is universal and non-gendered: kids copy what their role-model parent does.
So maybe this is one dilemma we can hand over to the dads.