Rainbow Looming Our Way To Gender Equality

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There are little plastic rubber bands all over our house.  On my way upstairs this morning, I noticed them strewn on the stair treads like colorful flower petals after a spring storm.  That’s because my 11 year-old son spent more than an hour yesterday at the top of the stairs, “where the light is good”, perfecting his starburst bracelet on the Rainbow Loom.   Technically, it’s his 8 year-old sister’s, but his Rainbow Loom will be arriving tomorrow via Amazon Prime.  He used some of his Christmas money to buy one for himself.

Anyone with kids in elementary or middle school will understand what I’m talking about, but this is something worth talking about even if you don’t have kids.   The Rainbow Loom has been popular for months. What is striking for me as a parent, however, is that this is a toy that is equally popular with both boys and girls.  Of the more than $3 million in sales since August, almost half of the Rainbow Looms reportedly were purchased for boys.

I first noticed the Rainbow Loom’s gender-neutral popularity last month at a PeeWee hockey tournament.  Since the tournament was out-of-town, the team and their families were all staying at the same hotel.  I noticed that all of the younger siblings – especially the boys – were prodigious Rainbow Loomers.   A group of younger brothers, all 9 and 10, were Rainbow Looming by the pool.  Later that night, they were Rainbow Looming at the rink before the game.

“Do the guys on your team like to Rainbow Loom, too?”  I asked my son.  He’s one of the youngest on his PeeWee team; most of the boys are already 12.

“Sure,” he said.  “But we didn’t have much time for it this weekend. You know, because we had to focus on hockey.”

Before my oldest son was born 14 years ago, I thought I could raise my kids in a gender-neutral way.  I had a wide range of toys on hand for him to choose from, including a baby doll.  But he and his younger brother showed no interest at all in playing with dolls or stuffed animals or Barbies or anything like that. When I caught them drop-kicking the doll, I finally gave it away to a more loving home.   By the time our daughter was born, we had no toys left that could be characterized as stereotypically female.   That is, until the day that I found her cradling a Darth Vader action figure.  She was kneeling next to a bowling pin that she had put to bed with a Kleenex for a blanket.   The premise of my nurture v. nature theory having been blown out of the water, I took her to Target and let her pick out a baby doll.  At eight, she is still taking excellent care of her “family”.

The bigger lesson for me was that kids will choose to play with what is interesting to them.   My kids inherited a substantial Hotwheels collection from my brother, but the boys never played with them much.   My daughter has always enjoyed playing with the cars, although she often plays with them differently.   Sometimes I’ll find them all lined up by color, for example.  Instead of making car noises like “Vroom! Vroom!”, the conversations I’ve overheard coming out her room are about relationships.  “Oh, Baby car!  Are you lonely? Do you want to park by Mommy car?”

Toy choice is the single most sex-typed behavior that children display.   Sure, my daughter chooses the stereotypical feminine toy most of the time.But the point is that she should be able to play with any toy and in any way that she wants to, regardless of what our society traditionally dictates as the appropriate gender-based toys.  And that goes for her brothers, too.

This holiday season, my daughter and I talked a lot about the gender-based marketing of toys.  It’s especially noticeable in the toy section – some stores even have aisles blatantly identified with pink for girls and blue for boys.   On the same toy aisle where she picked out her first baby doll, we noticed a ultra-pink display for “Lego Friends”.  My daughter, unimpressed at this new line of Legos marketed to girls, observed that,  “I don’t get it. It seems like they should just sell all the Legos in the same aisle.”

Which brings me back to the Rainbow Loom, a toy that has grown tremendously popular without much marketing at all. Rainbow Loom is popular because of word of mouth and YouTube.  Kids decided it is cool and fun to Rainbow Loom, and they shared that information (along with the colorful, plastic bracelets) with each other.

I witnessed something similar last summer when my son and the other boys at camp were obsessed with fingerweaving.  I have a mental picture of a group of them, all 11 and 12 years old, sitting around and fingerweaving during their free time.  In the middle of the circle was a huge mound – yards and yards and yards – of their collective fingerweaving.  Every once in a while, someone would call out, “I need more yarn!” and someone else would make a run for the craft room.  Fingerweaving was cool and fun in their social context and everyone, regardless of sex, was doing it.

I see the same phenomenon with the Rainbow Loom.  When tween boys are making jewelry at the hockey rink, you know it is not a popularity bogged down by gender-stereotypes.

“Why do you like to make things on your Rainbow Loom?”  I asked my daughter.   “Because it is creative and fun!” she replied.

When I asked my son the same question, he replied,  “Because it’s fun.  And creative.”

That pretty much says it all.   In a gender-biased world, they found a gender-neutral toy that they both love for the same reasons.   So I ordered them each a new package of 1800 colorful little rubber bands.  I won’t even mind picking them up off the floor.

The Rainbow Loom – and the kids that have made it wildly popular – give me hope.  Hope that this generation will keep our society moving, slowly but surely,  towards gender equality.

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Regrets

A couple of days ago, my  daughter asked me, “Do you ever have regrets?”

She asked me this in the bathroom, as I was drying my hair.  No matter what I am doing, my two youngest kids seem to hover around me, fluttering like moths to a flame.  The lack of privacy – not to mention personal space – doesn’t really bother me anymore.  And often, as on this particular morning, it provides the opportunity to talk about whatever is bubbling to the surface of  their young minds.

I weighed my possible responses. My daughter just turned eight. What could a second-grader possibly know about regret?  In the end, I answered that, in general, my regrets were not about things that I had done but rather about things that I had NOT done.

“Do YOU have any regrets?” I asked.

After a pause, she admitted, “Sometimes I’m not so nice to some kids at school.”

“But recognizing that you aren’t always nice means that you can do something about it,” I pointed out.  “Right?”

She shrugged and wandered off with her American Girl doll.  Maybe the message would sink in.

But for me,  a question remained, left hanging in the humid, post-shower bathroom air.

What do you do when you have regrets but you know that there is not a thing in the world that you can do about them?

The truth is that my daughter’s question brought me back to a conversation that I had in a very different context.  Several years ago, I spent some time in the Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana. I was with a team taking statements from Liberian refugees for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia.  It was almost exactly six years ago – May 2007 – and it was grueling, emotional work.  I interviewed more than 40 people that week and every single one of them  had suffered multiple layers of trauma and unimaginably tragic loss.  One after another, in family groups and as individuals, they sat before me in a small, cramped office.  Sometimes there was power for the ceiling  fan to move the hot, heavy air; sometimes there was not.  Each one of them was a survivor of horror, a testifier to the nightmare of war.  (I’ve written about some of them before in Talking To My Kids About Death.)

Even though they had left their homeland of Liberia, what they had experienced was still very much with them.  Even if they could push it down deep during the day, the terrors they witnessed would return to haunt their dreams.   Many people I interviewed told me of how the nightmares startled them awake at night, sweating and crying.  Many more told me of hearing others screaming in the night, neighbors who were trapped in their own PTSD- induced nightmares. There is no privacy in a refugee camp.

There was one woman who has always stayed with me.  She was middle-aged, calm and collected.  She told me her story in detail, almost scientifically exact.  Clearly, she had relived the events many times over.  She told me of her life before the war, the fighting and chaos that separated her from her husband and some of her children, the desperate weeks when she, her youngest children, and their neighbors hid in the bush, the treacherous journey to the border. The years – more than a decade- of limbo in this refugee camp.

At the end of any interview, I always ask, “Is there anything else you would like to tell me?”

This woman told me of that the only true regret that she had, the only regret of her life, was about something that she had not been able to do. What she told me went something like this:

We were hiding in the bush and the rebels passed close by.  They attacked a village there.  They didn’t see us, but we saw them.   They killed a lot of people.  We were too afraid to move, so afraid they would hear us.  There was a baby crying; they must have killed the mother.  The baby kept crying and crying and crying.  I wanted to go get that baby, but what could I do?  I knew the baby’s crying would give us all away to the rebels. The baby kept crying and crying and crying, all night long.  And then it stopped.  I knew that the baby had died.  In the morning, we saw that the rebels had moved on and we left our hiding place.  Now I hear that poor baby crying every night in my dreams.

Most people will never be put in a position like this, this untenable Hobson’s Choice.  Most of us will never be faced with having to make the choice between our own life -and that of our children and neighbors – and that of an innocent baby.  Many of us would like to assume that we would find a way to not make the choice; that we would find a way to save that baby.

I knew I could not save that baby.  I wanted to, so much, but I knew I could not.  Even so, I have always felt bad about it. I have never told anyone – not one single person – about this before. Just telling you now – it makes me feel better.

I don’t have any answers here, just as I had nothing to say to this woman other than “I am so sorry.”  I can’t change the world.   I can’t promise my daughter that she won’t experience pain or sorrow or guilt or regret.  I don’t even have an image to go along with this post.

But if there is one thing that I took away from that hot, cramped interview room in that refugee camp in Ghana, it is that there is a value in bearing witness.  I had worked with refugees and torture survivors for years, but it took this one woman to bring that point home to me.  There is a value in simply listening,  and in confirming for someone who suffered injustice that, “It is not right and I’m sorry that this happened to you.”

It may seem insignificant, but it is not.  And it is a reminder that when you come in contact with someone who is suffering, in either a big or a small way, there is always something that you can do. You can listen.

So do it.

2012: My Year In Pictures

In this, the darkest and quietest time of the year, I have taken a few moments to reflect on all that has passed in 2012. Here is a brief look at my year in pictures:

All in all, it has been a pretty good year.  As my friend Amy described it, a mix of exotic and everyday.  The perfect description of my life!

What’s in store for 2013? To begin with, I’ll be in Morocco in January, Cameroon in February and Tanzania in March.  In short, the fortune cookie was right:

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

(See other bloggers’ 2012 in Pictures here and here)