Ellen Stimson, Author of ‘Mud Season’ Didn’t Believe in Barbies or Toy Guns Until…

Author Ellen Stimson‘s memoir Mud Season recently hit shelves. It’s about her family’s move to gorgeous, rural Vermont after one magical vacation. Things pretty much go south from there in her witty and bittersweet book.

Ellen had a lot of ideas about parenthood that went south, and she shares them with us in this most excellent essay below. Find out what happens when well-meaning pacifist, gender-neutral parents come to blows with their feisty kids’ personalities. Would you let your kid have a Barbie? A toy gun? They didn’t think so until…

Parenting 101 by Ellen Stimson

When our kids were little we had very definite ideas about what their raising was going to look like. There would be no gender biases in our toy purchases for one thing. We were not going to fall into the truck and gun or pink and purple trap. Our house would be free of the stereotyping messages that our culture bombards little boys and girls with on TV and on the playground. Our house would be a gender-neutral zone, where preferences and natural identity were respected and exploration of biases examined. Multiculturalism would be taught and thoughtful discourse would be encouraged. This was the way we made our way in the world, and it was the way we would raise our children, by golly.

We had spent lots of time thinking about these issues and planning our parenting styles. Our ideas had been long-considered, and we were going to wind up with balanced kids who treated everyone they met with kindness, dignity and respect. They would not be bound by society’s notions of male and female. Their lives would be fuller and richer as a result. I’m sure we saw them bringing peace to the Middle East and curing cancer while they were at it.

In the whole nature versus nurture debate we fell squarely on the nurture side. We figured if parents would just provide loving experiences and offer up ideas at the supper table, kids would gravitate toward tolerance. What debate? We had this whole thing figured out. Only then, we actually met the kids. We had forgotten that they might come to the party with their own ideas.

I began to get an inkling of the problem when Benjamin was about three. We’d gotten him a baby doll for Christmas. I was pregnant with Hannah and the doll, Baby Sarah, was to be his baby. She was a beautiful African-American baby with soft milk chocolaty skin. He chose her himself from a wide shelf of offerings. I was smug and proud as we walked to the check out counter. There were happy thought bubbles bouncing all around.

“This really works!”

“He picked a black baby.”

“He doesn’t even see color differences.”

I was so proud I could hardly stand it. Now, we had very limited television watching. Benjamin was a Big Bird fan, so Sesame Street was on the list. David the Gnome had just some out and I loved those sweet little cartoons with the Fox who raced through the forest. So, that made the list, too. But there was no violent television in our house. John and I didn’t watch much TV anyway, so this was easy. We had no war toys, either. Benjamin played with other kids at the playground, but that was all about the slide and feeding ducks in the pond. He had the sweetest little childhood experiences I could have dreamt up. So, when we got home with Baby Sarah that day imagine my surprise when I went out to the yard with a snack.

Benjamin had given baby Sarah a drink from the hose. That was thoughtful. But, he noticed that her belly filled with water when she “drank.” He quickly added some little rocks to the belly. When I came out with apples and peanut butter, he was squeezing her belly and making AK47 sounds. He was shooting … make that SHOOTING! the rocks out of her mouth by squeezing her middle. Sounds were coming from the back of his throat that were remarkably like a fast shooting gun.

“Aa aa aa aa aa! Aa aa aa aa aa!” Three years old and improvising a machine gun from a baby doll and a water hose. Well, at least I raised a really smart, creative boy.

“Benjamin, honey,” I said. “Let’s give Baby Sarah some apples.”

“Aa aa aa aa aa! Aa aa aa aa aa!” Infantry Toddler.

Well, okay. So, it was an aberration. A blip. And probably Grandma’s fault anyway.

Then, of course, we met Hannah. I bought her blue dresses, and a pile of trucks along with the dolls and chemistry sets. By the time she was three, she was in all-pink all-the-time. By four, we gave up completely. She had a Barbie car that she could drive, and when she spent the night with her friend, Nora, the Barbie suitcase took up more room than her own clothes. When she had first started lobbying for Barbies, I was carefully explaining how Barbie’s body didn’t look like a real girl’s body. (Today, at age 24, Hannah is six feet tall and has a slim elegance. She has always been built like a racehorse.)

Benjamin listened at the table, as I introduced good feminist theory to toddler Hannah.

“Mom,” he breathed in exasperation, “Look at Hannah. I mean it. Really look. She does sort of look like a Barbie. Except her feet aren’t pointed, I guess.”

I looked.

“But, honey, women come in all shapes and sizes, and I don’t want Hannah growing up thinking we all need to look like Barbie.” I figured he could use a dose of feminism while I was serving it up.

Benjamin understood then, where I was going with this. He was her big brother, and he had just wanted to help. But, he was on a roll.

He looked his sister in the eye and said, “Hannah, mom’s right. You can probably have a Barbie, but you have to remember that real people don’t have pointy feet. They just do that so you can get the shoes on.”

He turned to me, “How about that Mom. Can she have one now?”

Sure. What the heck. I couldn’t blame Grandma this time..

These kids were supposed to have their own preferences after all. So, we bought her a Barbie. I figured if I made too much of a deal out of this she would get all obsessive about them. Buying her one would curb her appetite. So we got one. Pretty soon we had dozens. I was spending hours on the floor putting on Barbie dresses and making high ponytails out of impossibly little hair. Truth is some of my happiest memories are from those long, lazy Barbie days. And before long her room was pink pink pink as far as the eye could see.

By the time Eli came along, we had the full catastrophe. During all this parenting, we had managed to hold only one line in the battle. The battle. See, even I’m doing it. Anyway, during this particular battle, we permitted colorful water guns ONLY. Nothing realistic looking.

I ought to get to have some preferences of my own, damn it. I was standing my ground.

Then we moved to Vermont when Eli was 7. Vermont, where even our liberal Ph.D. friends bought Winchesters. There was something in the air. So we were in Vermont, where every kid for miles had “air soft” guns. Air Soft guns are plastic guns that look so real that they would get you arrested in an airport.

These things shoot bullets that are bigger and softer than BBs, but not quite as soft as Nerf balls. One afternoon, after playing at his best friend Timmy’s house, Timmy’s dad brought Eli home because they were going to have an “air soft war” and Eli had explained to them, with great sadness, that he wasn’t allowed to play with guns. And possibly that his parents are the worst. That he lives in an authoritarian state. So Mike, without any judgment, sweetly and responsibly brought Eli home.

I started off feeling proud of our big 7-year-old boy for telling Mike about the family rules. Only as he told me about the boys building the dirt hills for the war, he plaintively asked could he maybe just possibly go back for that part with such longing in his eyes. I could stand my own principles no longer. We went to the sporting goods store and came home with three of the little devils.

For a while, I made him paint them orange so they wouldn’t look like real guns. This seemed like a fun activity that made him safer. And perhaps more importantly, made me feel like we were making it clear that this was just a game.

This was not shooting. It was more of a kind of tag. Yes, … well, I needed to tell myself something. But, the orange paint got all over everything. It also made Eli stand out in a way that meant he got shot more than anyone else. This didn’t seem fair. And I might be a little competitive too. So before long, we had a passel of the blackest, realest looking guns in the village. I mean, I didn’t want my kid to lose the wars for goodness sakes. That would be wrong. And against my principles.

Come autumn, I was hosting air soft wars of our own, complete with BBQ pork sandwiches for the ceasefires. We also added a shooting, screaming banshee of a mother, who decided when the time-out was over. And who got the first shots off herself, before they had finished chewing their sandwiches.

Parenting is a full-contact sport.”

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