Fight Sexism with Nursery Rhymes

An activity my older daughter and I frequently engage in is singing together (and of course I sing to my baby), the lyrics of which I often change whether to emphasize specific characteristics (“if you are pretty and you know it” is always changed to “if you are smart and you know it”) or to be more inclusive of female pronouns (…but the one little duck with a feather on her back, she lead the others with a quack, quack, quack). One of my toddler’s favorites is the song I create to the tune of London Bridges. Because she is a girl (or rather, she has a female body and people make assumptions accordingly), I actively choose words that emphasize physical and mental strength because I know that in general society reserves those praises for boys (or those in male bodies). Here’s an example of what I might sing (insert your own child’s name):

(name) is super smart, super smart, super smart. (name) is super smart, yes she is.

(name) is super brave, super brave, super brave. (name) is super brave, yes she is.

(name) jumps real high, jumps real high, jumps real high. (name) jumps real high, yes she does.

 using the same pattern but with the following descriptions: runs real fast, is curious, throws real far, is super great, is super funny, is a great kicker.

I don’t have a boy but if I did I might include other phrases: is very kind, is generous, is super sweet, is very thoughtful, gives great hugs, is super gentle.

Not that I don’t encourage those qualities in my girls, I just specifically use this song to encourage qualities that, in general, society does not.

This concern comes from my personal experience volunteering for Ophelia’s Place for a few years in my early twenties. One of the opportunities I had was presenting to middle school classrooms about media and body image and activity we often employed was about “gender boxes.” I would ask them to describe boys and write their words on the chalkboard. Always they would use descriptors like strong, independent, smart, leader, brave, trust worthy, makes good money, athletic, angry, physical, agressive. They would describe girls as sensitive, emotional, pretty, gossipy, nice, giving, has cute clothes, nurtering, caring, weak, needy. I would ask where they learned this from and they would not have a direct answer. Someone would say that everyone just knows.

I hope it is clear that there is a problem with this. If not, let me tell you there are numerous issues that assigning us to gender boxes contributes to including sexism, gendered violence, intimate partner violence, sexual violence, homophobia, transphobia, low confidence in girls, lower  achievement in girls. Yes, these issues all overlap but are also significant on their own.

Plus, gender boxes just don’t have room for those who a fuller range of experience. Consider the dad who is sensitive, nurturing, and emphathetic, as he would need to be to connect with and care for young children. Consider the female athlete, celebrated for her strength.

With two daughters of my own can I contribute to the larger feminist movement and fight sexism just by trying to raise them into empowered women? Can simple nursery rhymes and games that we engage in through the infant and toddler stages be pieces of the puzzle that raise confident girls? Yes, I believe so. At the very least, I hope that if someone walks into their middle school classrooms asking about gender characteristics, the boys and girls lists their classes create look much more similar. 

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