A couple of weeks ago at school pick-up time, some kids were super-excited, because they were heading off to celebrate a little girl’s birthday. Others looked sad, and left out. I could relate. I was never one of the “cool kids” growing up. I was “weird,” a geeky bookworm, and I can count the birthday parties I went to as a child on the fingers of one hand.
Some schools have stepped in to deal with this high-stress social scene by enforcing rules about birthday party invitations. A friend told me that at her daughter’s school, the rule is this: you either invite all the kids in the class, or you invite just your child’s gender group.
Her daughter, who is in the second grade, spends most of her recesses playing with the boys. She enjoys soccer, and sports; her mom says that she’s more athletically inclined than her older brother. The girl has playdates with boys, they’re her closest friends. But she’s unable to go to most of their birthday parties, because nearly every parent chooses the less-expensive option of just inviting their child’s gender group.
So while the school might have lessened one kind of stress for the students — the anxiety of being left-out, uninvited — it’s created a social atmosphere of sexism, by assuming that boys would only want to invite boys to their parties, and that the girls only play with the girls. This does end up excluding kids, and what’s worse, it ties that exclusion specifically to their gender, which I believe can create a deeper, lasting wound.
My friend’s daughter has become increasingly sad, for example, that she can’t go to the boys’ parties. And the parties she is invited to, the girls’ parties, tend to exaggerate traditional gender stereotypes — they’re themed around princesses and arts and crafts, while the boys’ parties take place at the park and involve organized sports. It leaves her feeling confused, because there’s this underlying sense that perhaps there’s something wrong with her for wanting to run around with the boys instead of playing nicely with the girls.
There have always been girls who prefer playing with boys, and vice versa, because gender is just a concept, a set of styles and assumptions. Being athletic, or aggressive, or assertive isn’t related to being male and having a penis. Just like some boys might find themselves interested in wearing a dress on a beautiful spring day; no big deal, that has nothing to do with their biology or even sexual preference.
Our attitudes about gender in this country need to loosen up and change. A woman can be president, and a man can be a stay-at-home parent in a playgroup with mostly moms. Why should we force our kids to segregate themselves into groups of boys and girls? Especially at a party, when they should be hanging out with the kids they like the most.
Will some kids not get invited, and feel left out? Probably. We’re not friends with everyone, sadly, and I know from experience that doesn’t feel great. Nor can all parents afford, or even desire, to have a huge invite-the-whole-class style party.
But it’s silly and arbitrary to link socializing preferences to gender. In a world where we encourage girls to think of themselves as engineers or doctors or scientists if they so choose, and also teach boys it’s OK to be nurturers, care-givers, and emotive, this rule seems antiquated.