Even the very young enforce gender roles of adults

SOME YEARS AGO, my wife’s friend and the friend’s 8-year-old daughter visited my wife and me at our townhouse apartment. Later, after conversation and coffee, the four of us were standing outside in the parking lot getting ready to say our goodbyes. My wife then pointed to the shiny new used car we had recently bought, and we all, with me taking up the rear, walked over so her friend could admire it close up.

My wife, a newly “liberated” woman and eager to display how unconstrained by gender roles she was, popped open the hood of the car. A tad too melodramatically, she pulled out the dipstick and inspected the oil level. “Looks OK to me,” she announced with great pride and slammed down the hood.

Then a strange thing happened that I will never forget. The 8-year-old daughter, standing a few feet in front of me, suddenly spun on her heel. Glaring at me, she snapped, “Why do you make her do that?” Her exact words.

Whoa-ho! Think about that for a moment. What the daughter did was, for the time three decades ago, rich in meaning. Among other possible things, it may have meant that this 8-year-old girl perceived oil-checking as dirty work below the dignity of women but not of men. It meant, too, that she believed that no woman would willingly perform such an undignified task unless the almighty, all-controlling husband made her do it — although, as it was in my case, I had lingered in the background and hadn’t so much as made even a subtle hand signal to my wife that the young girl perhaps imagined I had made in order to command, “Check the oil, slave-wife!”

The girl’s statement suggested I was supposed to control my wife and prohibit her from doing things a woman “shouldn’t” do, even if she wanted to do them! Just like the Taliban!

Does it mean as well that even an adolescent, normally docile girl believes she has the freedom — and the power — to rip into a full-grown man like a junkyard dog and denounce him with, effectively, “How dare you let the gender roles get turned around!”? (Wow, just who controls whom here? Did this little girl see men as having responsibility for things but saw women as being the real bosses? Has “the patriarchy” actually always been a matriarchy, and we men just didn’t know it?)

All that from an 8-year-old girl. Today, over thirty years later, I’m still amazed at how hard even young children work to maintain our gender roles. And I still ask myself: Would this young girl have similarly lit into my wife had she seen me washing dishes? Somehow I suspect not. I suspect she would’ve scolded me for this, too, because I was being a “yello’-bellied wuss” for allowing my wife to lead me around by the nose.

No wonder men as a group die sooner.

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