~Based on an experience I had tutoring refugee children last week~
Amal* picked a book from the shelf. “What’s this book about?” the little girl questioned with wide eyes.
“I am not sure yet, but we will find out!” I assured Amal, as I took a look at the title: Mommy Ant, Eat Your Vegetables, a 21st century children’s book by a Canadian author.
We went back to the table and she beamed as she showed me her purple pencil bag. Despite the fact that Amal had recently arrived from Iraq, the inquisitive five year-old was incredibly articulate, and her English was near perfect. However, being just a preschooler, her reading skills didn’t extend far past the alphabet.
As I read the book to her, I stopped from time to time and asked her if she understood. It was a short picture book meant to convince young children to eat their vegetables, and at first, I read it quite passively. It wasn’t until the middle of the book that I started paying attention, specifically because of two sentences, in which the mother ant was telling her daughter and son to eat their vegetables. While this comes from memory, the lines went something like this:
“‘Annie Ant,’ said Mommy Ant. ‘Do you want to have bad eyes and bad teeth on your wedding day?’”
“‘Arnie Ant,’ said Mommy Ant. ‘Do you want to have back pains and weak bones when you go to college?’”
I was astonished. Why was the objective of Annie Ant’s childhood her wedding, while that of Arnie Ant was college? Is that the goal of a woman’s life? To grow to be beautiful, so that she can be married off while her brother goes on to pursue independence and education? And why does a woman have to be beautiful and a man strong? Can’t she be intelligent or hardworking? Is a woman’s worth in life defined by her physical appearance? The proposition bothered me.
Fortunately, by that point, Amal had lost interest in the actual story, so we spent some time discussing who was doing what in the pictures. Nevertheless, those questions kept crossing my mind. I was disappointed to see the ideals that are being ingrained into children at an early age. The fact that a simple book, whose main lesson was to teach children to make healthy choices, had a different underlying societal message, was perplexing.
I thought about the children who came to the tutoring center every week. Nearly all were little girls with big dreams. They learned quickly, were always curious, but most of all, they were extremely driven and had big ambitions for their futures. I remember a girl skipping play time to work on some more addition problems, and another asking for one more quiz on the months of the year. Most of the girls came from a part of the world where women’s rights were still a work in progress, but their hard-working dedication for a successful future was inspiring. What really hurt me was that these girls, who were challenging stereotypes to reach for the stars, were being brought down by the strong presence of gender roles in picture books. In Mommy Ant, Eat Your Vegetables, the example of differential treatment based on gender was extremely obvious. However, a fairy tale about a weak “damsel in distress” being saved by her “prince charming”, delivers the same message, just in a subtle manner.
The foundation of our mindset results from the ideas that we are exposed to in our childhood. If young girls are shown at an early age that they are capable of defining their own meaning, we will be taking significant steps towards dissolving the gender disparity in our society. Shouldn’t we start addressing this issue? Is it right that the future of young girls is being subtly sabotaged by the stories they read at an early age? I think it’s about time we do something to combat the factors that are stopping girls from realizing their full potential, starting with something as simple as children’s books.
I saw this video after writing my blog post, and it really hit home. Kudos to Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo for their efforts.