When I asked my 12-year-old daughter what she learned at her week-long sleep-away camp last summer, she replied: “Dad, some people pee in lakes.”
I loved her nonchalant delivery of such an intriguing detail. I also loved the gender-neutrality of her use of “some people,” which created a bubble of mystery I chose not to burst.
As a veteran stay-at-home father, one of my favorite aspects of camping is precisely its gender-neutrality, or at least gender role flexibility. As my extended family plans for another camping experience, I look forward to my daughters, nieces and nephews once again enjoying cross-sex activities like hiking, swimming, kayaking and building a fire.
Granted, gender roles and their expectations can still be tricky for both girls and boys to navigate. A few years ago, a family trip to a summer cottage reminded me of the growing gender role flexibility of young girls in our culture. Eight-year-old Lindsay and I were having a great time fishing, as she discovered a passion for catch-and-release excitement on the dock. On the last day of the trip, she was rushing through breakfast so she could get in some last-minute fishing before we had to leave. As we gathered our gear for the dock, I heard her implore my wife for help with her hair: “Mom, hurry up and put in my DevaCurl! I want to go fishing!”
The moment amused me. But it also made me think about why it seems so cute and part of “girl power” for girls to be boy-like, while boys still seem stigmatized for being interested in activities traditionally associated with girls like babysitting or baking. Ironically, a movie reinforced such a stigma on that same trip when I saw Grown Ups, in which Chris Rock plays a pathetic stay-at-home dad with a domineering wife and mother-in-law.
My ideal for the future would be that boys and girls have opportunities to experience the liberation and joy of freely drawing from traditional notions of masculinity and femininity. For future parents, this would mean a world of increasingly flexible gender roles that can be donned or detached as needed.
Fortunately, these biases are waning, and more choices are opening up for boys, but there seems to be a lag compared to girls’ options. (On the flip side, one might argue that the “DevaCurl moment” illustrates the ongoing pressures females face in our appearance-obsessed culture, though it was clear Lindsay asked for the hair product with glee.)
My ideal for the future would be that boys and girls have opportunities to experience the liberation and joy Lindsay displayed in the “DevaCurl moment,” in which she freely drew from traditional notions of masculinity and femininity. For future parents, this would mean a world of increasingly flexible gender roles that can be donned or detached as needed.
As a toddler, Lindsay once went through a “wig time” phase when she would occasionally don a long blonde wig to feel more “relaxed,” as she described it. I have not gone through a similar period (so far). But I will admit that once I became proficient at using various conventional signifiers of the opposite parental gender — e.g. a baby bottle, stroller, diaper bag, and minivan — it was often “relaxing” to enjoy the feeling of competence. The key, it seems, is for both men and women to continue removing the gendered perception of those objects in the first place.
While our family has made much progress in this direction, our quest to remove gender from as many objects as possible is an ongoing project. A recent setback involved a fly swatter. As I stood in my kitchen, a 1950s scenario unfolded around me: Lindsay heard a buzzing near her head, frantically grabbed a fly swatter, shoved it into my hand, and locked herself in a closet. She may have just been having a bad day, but I had to remind her that she was the same girl who once bravely watched a raccoon ransack her campsite without flinching.
Maybe there’s just something in the lake water at those camps.