Tuesday, September 04, 2007

What Wheels on the Bus do you sing?

I was (kind of) personally appalled to read this article http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/02/fashion/02love.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&oref=slogin which appeared in the New York Times this past Sunday. Right away, I will admit that it is not “real news,” as it appeared in the gossipy pages of the Sunday Styles section. The piece, mostly about how and why we say “I love you” to our children, opens with a discussion of the verses of this popular time-occupying song.

I don’t know how you do it in your family, but here is how we do it in mine. In our house, Abba goes to the library, Ema goes to work, and the mommies and the daddies on the bus say “Hello kids.” Babies, if they appear on the bus, say “goo goo ga”. Sometimes the daddies go to school, and sometimes we sing the Metrocard verse (it goes in and out, fyi).

Unfortunately, this was planned out, something we considered before we really began to put the song into heavy rotation. We received a fabulous set of board books of classic children’s songs from a British publishing house, a gift from my beloved grandmother, and the book used the classic sexist language that both my husband and I were trying to avoid. And I am quite embarrassed by it. I find that I need to assert myself and (when it is appropriate) sing these verses around anyone who cares, on the bus, and loudly. In front of my family, in front of my inlaws, whenever it is called for. In fact, it was one of the first songs my son could sing. Thankfully, this is the only song I have had to struggle with and revise, so far.

I greatly appreciate traditional children’s books, toys and songs. I have worked hard to fill my son’s library with favorites from my childhood, toys that I bought on Ebay and painstakingly cleaned, songs that are on the list of “must-sings” for any decent nursery school. Books include some that I’ve discovered were not just my favorites, but my mother’s, with publishing dates back to the early 1940’s. In general, these items deserve their classic status. They are not just not sexist, they are genderless, accessible by any child. Jack and Jill both fell down and broke their crown, and I don’t know the verse in which Jill gives up her entire career to nurse Jack back to health. Today’s books, toys and songs are mostly, with some exceptions, not this way.

Bottom line, I do not want my son exposed to ridiculous, outdated gender stereotypes. I could make it my fulltime job to protect him from all of this, cutting out pictures, pre-screening every moment of TV he will ever watch, and reading every book he will ever read before he gets his hands on it. I can’t do this forever, but I can do it now. Just like I like to protect him from the rampant commercialism that has overwhelmed kid culture, I want to protect him from overt, mass produced sexism.

One of my greatest teachers and mentors, Tova Hartman, once commented that it is easy to raise a boy to be a feminist, but much more difficult to raise a girl to be a feminist. I want to be conscious of the subtleties that my son picks up when he plays, the language he uses to talk about women, and set the stage for him to develop a strong feminist consciousness, as he follows in the footsteps of his feminist father. I don’t have a daughter, but I know that if I did, I would work doubly as hard, not only to protect her from these stereotypes but to protect her self-esteem.

I want to be aware of how my son understands all of this. What we sing, what toys we buy, what products we allow into our house send a profound message to our children. It is not my business to encourage you to choose one route over another; I still feel a great deal of conflict about this on many levels. However, I cannot help but think that being thoughtful and conscientious about what we expose our children to cannot help but be to their benefit.


Barbara said...

My late mother's method of raising a feminist? Try to raise her to be submissive woman. I went in the total opposite direction.

phyllis@imabima said...

i too read that piece in the times and had never heard that version of the wheels on the bus. i usually sing "the parents" on the bus...which works for me! i am the mom of 2 boys and 1 girl, and i tell you that i am most scared about raising her "right" -- to be strong and feminist and self-assured without being overbearing about it...wow, no small order. plus i want the same for my beautiful boys... to paraphase the wise rabbis...it's not up to me to complete this task, but i damn well start it off right!

Maya said...

I share your sentiments about self esteem in girls (and boys sensitive to these issues) but I wouldn't say nursery rhymes and other children's songs of the 1940s were "classic" and "genderless." Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater, who kept his wife in a pumpkin shell was as much a part of Mother Goose as Jack and Jill (and Jill came tumbling after Jack--do we even know how her crown fared?). Nursery rhymes and fairy tales simply reflect the values of any given society or culture at any given time. Though women did replace men in the labor force during WWII, they were given the boot when the war was over, as we all know. Hence the 1950s. I think what you did with the "Wheels on the Bus" is what makes oral culture work: treat the songs as templates.