|the Delgado González family tree
(clockwise from top father Juan, mother María Alicia,
younger daughter María Esther and older son Juan)
María Alicia and I had a really interesting conversation last week about raising kids. I was writing my mid-semester reflective essay about the difference between gender roles in Chile and the US. I had chosen the topic because I’ve noticed a number of friends fall hardcore for latin men, who have a reputation for being more sensitive and affectionate than their US counterparts. However, at the same time, the amount of machismo is often through-the-roof, and hyper-feminization of women (in appearance especially) is at times more than I can handle. What interests me is how, compared to the US, Chile is a country of extremes. On the one hand, apparent sensitivity and ready affection by men, which goes against the US stereotype, and on the other hand, machismo that is unacceptable where I’ve lived in the US.
I asked María Alicia because I’d been reading articles about early-childhood genderization of kids in families. The differentiation starts with obvious things like clothing and toys, but also permeates language. We tell little girls that they’re pretty or nice, encouraging them to smile a lot, and we tell little boys that they’re strong or smart, telling them to be tough and not cry. Now, in general, I have a problem with giving kids compliments about intrinsic features in themselves that they can’t change (looks, IQ), or really anything other than behavior they can control (how hard they worked, how considerate they were of other people). However, I especially have a problem with defining gender for kids, not just because it’s limiting, but also because it’s damaging for those who don’t identify with the gender roles that society constructs for their (if definable) biological sex.
Anyways, I assumed that whatever I saw in Chile would be a half-generation behind in the spheres of parenting theory and feminist liberation. I was delightfully wrong. First, to María Alicia the idea of parenting theory was completely foreign. She and Juan didn’t even ever talk about how they were going to raise their kids, they just raised them according to their values. There were non-negotiables, like family time only on Sundays and no lying, but there was also a lot of freedom to be who they wanted to be. This brings me to point number 2: there wasn’t a speck of feminist liberation in any of it. They raised their kids as absolute equals, as much as was possible, a boy and a girl with only a year and a half to separate them. They were best friends, giving equal attention to the trucks and the dolls, weaving their playthings together like any creative kids would.
We both left the conversation a little nonplussed, I think. María Alicia sat there in silence for a little while after we had stopped talking, wracking her brain as to where she’d found the certainty with which she raised her children to always think of how they treated others, to be honest with themselves and each other, trusting them to go out alone and not get in trouble, because that wasn’t necessarily how she’d been raised. I was in awe of this woman who had produced such amazing kids without any apparent theoretical crutches. I never met her son, but María Esther is this energetic, strong, self-possessed, beautiful, incredibly loving person with a very playful sense of humor.
I think it’s some measure of various -isms in me, first-world-ism, educated-ism, upper-middle-class-ism, influence-of-my-over-analyitical-dad-ism that is surprised that such crazy wonderful results can come from a place of love and gut feelings without reams of parenting opinions to validate. I’m kind of ashamed of that. I also feel alarmingly at home in the antiseptic world of the adoptive mother in Juno (a movie everyone must see), with her highlighted and underlined parenting books, fathering sections marked with post-its for her less-than-enthused husband. It’s not necessarily my fault, though. After all, the longest friendship of my life is the result of our mothers bonding in a birthing class, but I really do like the idea of minimalist parenting. No books.* No agony. Just live my values and try to share that process with the progeny. The problem now is to find out what, exactly, those values are. Oh well, I guess that’s what blogging, world travel and my 20s are for, right?
*Made the mistake of googling “minimalist parenting”. Unfortunately, this is not an original concept. Ironically, there are many books and/or resources out there to help you not use so many books and/or resources about parenting. *sigh*. The world we live in.