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Raising Children With Choices

It's undeniably difficult raising children in a changing world. You want the best for your children and you want them to fulfill their potential with each new activity that they undertake but, in a society where certain endeavors are still too often considered to be the domain of males only or of females only, it may take a bit of effort to create a maximum of opportunities for your children, whether they be girls or boys.

Every child, and for that matter, every adult, has innate aptitudes for certain things. Some kids may do better in school than others do, some excel in verbal skills, and for others their forte may be analytical skills or problem-solving. Mathematics and science come more easily to some children than to others, while some are good with their hands. Many are curious about how machines function. Some have the patience and perseverence to stick with a complex new project, and some don't. Certain children have a talent for drawing or for music. The possibilities and the individual variations are limitless.

As children grow up, what each child becomes is a combination of these innate aptitudes, exposure to a variety of topics and activities and experiences, plus the character-building lessons learned from parents, teachers, siblings, peers and others. One part of the equation, without the others, may lead nowhere. A particular child may have the potential to become a great musician but, unless that child is exposed to a variety of musical forms or has the opportunity to see and touch musical instruments and learn to play whichever one appeals to him or her, it may come to nothing. Another child might grow up to contribute great things to medical science but, unless taught basic biology and other sciences, that child will never see medicine as a possible career choice.

To allow your children to develop into the most that they can be, it's up to you to guide their education, in terms of their choices, from the variety of classes available to them at school, to their afterschool activities, public library use, the joining of local clubs, and the use of other resources which are available within your community or beyond it. You can also pass your own special skills, storehouse of knowledge, and interests on to your children.

Children are little bundles of potential. When raising your children, try to be ever conscious of this, and of the subtle sex role stereotyping that you yourself may have grown up with and how it might affect what you offer to your daughters or to your sons. As toddlers, are girls given dolls and boys given toy trucks ? Is a seven-year-old boy signed up for Little League, while a girl is offered ballet lessons ?

There's nothing wrong with little girls playing with dolls and taking dance lessons. Those activities are fine. Dolls are fun and they allow little girls to vicariously experiment with and prepare for real life social interactions. Dance lessons may reveal a future professional dancer or give your daughter the pleasure of a lifelong hobby, a great way to stay trim and fit, or a passion for ballet music. The problem arises if little girls are only exposed to traditional "female" pursuits and interests, such as dolls and dance lessons. Starting from the youngest age, give girls the opportunity to play with toy boats and cars and trains, as well. Encourage participation in organized sports and, when old enough, give your daughters science experiment kits. Don't limit your children's potentials by restricting their activities to traditional gender-based categories.

As your daughters grow up, expose them to as many different pursuits, of all types, as you can. Let them know how important their intellectual achievements and success in school are to you. Show them your pride in their accomplishments, but without making them feel unduly pressured. With time, their natural proclivities, abilities and talents will become more apparent and they will gravitate towards certain activities, while dropping others. In order for each to find the career and the leisure time activities that are a perfect fit for them, however, they need to have a smorgasbord of things from which to choose. Sure, this is all just common sense but, amid the hustle and bustle of everyday life, it's easy to reinforce old gender roles and girl/boy stereotypes without even being consciously aware that they exist.

After a childhood rich in opportunities and choices, a young woman still may ultimately choose a profession that's always been a female-dominated one and become a nurse or a teacher, for example, and that is fine. Those can be wonderful choices and they're important jobs in our society. I'm not denigrating any one job in relation to any other job. I just feel that a choice can only truly be a choice when it is chosen from a maximum variety of possibilities. If a girl (or a boy) becomes a nurse because it is the job that most appeals to her or him, that's wonderful. If a girl grows up to be a nurse, however, because she never realized that her interest in health care might have led her to become a great heart surgeon, then that is sad and not a true choice.

Ii's not just little girls who might suffer from an unnecessarily restricted set of choices. Little boys should also have the opportunity to experiment with the widest possible range of activities and interests. If dolls can help little girls practice for motherhood or for social interactions with their peers, then why can't they help little boys learn to be more nurturing future fathers ?

Doing their share of household chores can help all chidren become more responsible and cooperative adults, but don't automatically make girls wash the dishes while boys take out the garbage. Teach both sexes that all family members share both in the labors of and the rewards of family life. Both can help with the housework, both can help care for the new baby, and both can learn to be responsible for the care of family pets. That way, everyone wins. The world could do with more men who see housework as something that everyone in the family shares equally, who become equal partners in the raising of their own children, and who develop their interpersonal skills, along with their muscles. With that in mind, don't restrict your sons' extracurricular activities to all things macho. Your son may be a budding Njinsky or Fred Astaire but he, and you, will never know it if he's never exposed to a single dance step.

As with other types of unfair limitations on individuals' aspirations or lack of opportunities because of culture, race, income level, or physical handicap, for example, gender is a poor excuse for narrowing children's choices or placing ceilings on their dreams. It's all too easy for all of us to revert to old sex roles without even thinking, as some of these are so deeply ingrained in our society, in popular culture, and in the media. With a bit of care and thought, though, we can help the next generation build a society where boys and girls, women and men are all freer to find meaning in their lives by following their personal dreams, choosing the career track that's right for them, and developing hobbies that are a perfect fit for their individual interests and abilities. To do this, all they need is plenty to choose from and the chance to try out whatever interests them.

About the Author: Visit Children's Clothing, Stories and Family Gifts from Baby Bird Productions to see Barbara Freedman-De Vito's catalog of fun animated children's stories on CDs, as well as clothing and gift items decorated with pictures from the stories. Barbara has spent years as a children's librarian, teacher, professional storyteller, puppeteer, author and artist.

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