Beware of Dogs with Stereotypes

My story this week is not about Penny, but about a little dog named Spot. Many of you may know Spot as the playful little puppy from the picture books by Eric Hill. Spot lives with his father, who apparently works outside the home and is the breadwinner in the family, and his mother, a nurturing stay-at-home mom. Wondering how I know these things? I am the owner of two Spot board books, Spot Loves His Mommy and Spot Loves His Daddy (Hill, 2006). Gender bias and stereotypes exist in all forms of media, but do we really need to see traditional gender stereotypes reinforced by children’s books about a friendly little dog and his family?

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When my son, Robert, was a newborn, I bought him a copy of Spot Loves HIs Daddy. I saw it on sale at TJMaxx and the happy puppy reminded me of my smiling little baby. We read it often, and I appreciated the simple, cute illustrations along with the clear language. It quickly became one of Robert’s favorite books once he was old enough to actually sit still and listen. See the text below. It is a quick read!

Spot is happy. He and his daddy are spending the whole day together.
They play soccer at the park. Someone else wants to play!
Spot flies his kite. “This is fun, Daddy!” Spot says.
It’s feeding time for the ducks. “Quack, Quack!”
Daddy buys ice-cream. “Yummy!” Spot says.
At home, Daddy reads a special bedtime story to Spot.
“Thanks, Daddy. I love you,” Spot says. “I love you, too,” Daddy says.

(Hill, 2006)

Sometime when Robert was about 18 months old, I noticed a Pepto-Bismol pink copy of Spot Loves His Mommy, also on sale at TJMaxx. I thought it would be a welcome companion to the Daddy version. Moms deserve some attention, too, right? I was pregnant with my second child at the time and brought it home, along with some gender-neutral onesies and sleepers for my unborn, gender-unknown second child. When I read the book to Robert that evening, I was surprised and disappointed. Maybe I should stop buying books on sale, or at least read them first.

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It’s a lovely sunny morning. “Time for breakfast, Spot!” Mommy says.
Spot has fun helping Mommy with the shopping. “Thanks for helping, Spot!”
Spot hurts his knee. Mommy helps make it better.
They play hide-and-seek in the garden. “Where are you, Spot?” Mommy asks.
Spot and Mommy make a cake. “Yummy!” says Spot.
Mommy reads Spot a story. They snuggle up together.
“I love you, Mommy,” Spot says. “I love you, Spot,” Mommy says.

(Hill, 2006)

Notice any differences? In these incredibly brief snapshots into Spot’s family life, we are already to assume that Mommy does not work and is in charge of all shopping and cooking, and Daddy works, hence a whole day with him is special and full of adventure. Even if that is the case in some modern-day families, many have established very different gender roles. Why reinforce traditional roles in a book like this? Spot plays soccer, flies a kite, feeds ducks and eats ice-cream with Dad. He eats breakfast, goes to the grocery store, gets hurt, plays hide-and-seek and bakes a cake with Mom. He reads a story with both parents, but Daddy’s story is “special.” Mommy’s is not.

When I first read Spot Loves His Mommy, I was teaching full-time, and I was offended by the contradiction in these books because it implied that Mommy time was not as special. For all parents who work outside the home, time with our children is limited regardless of gender or family roles. It is true, even when teaching, I did all of the grocery shopping and was usually there when Robert got hurt. I also took him to the playground, played music with him and pushed him in his little car through the streets of Manhattan. Now, I am home with my three children. I bet most stay-at-home parents who do the cooking and nag their children about breakfast, as Spot’s mom does, also enjoy being recognized for the spontaneous and exciting moments they bring to the family.

The juxtaposition in these Spot books was unnecessary. The author only had a few pages to create a simple story line, and he chose to reinforce traditional gender roles rather than attempt to be gender neutral. Mommy and Daddy could have both been doing really exciting things or tackling everyday chores. Instead, he chose to make Daddy a “fun” diversion from everyday, and Mommy the main caregiver who is loving but boring. Mommy could be a combination of many modern-day moms and still bake a cake. She could have reflected my friend Jess, who coaches her daughter’s soccer team and goes with her on distance runs. She and Spot could have gone kayaking, as I do with my children. Or, as is the case of about half of the moms I know, she could have taken Spot to her office for Take Your Puppy to Work Day. Even a simple bike ride would suffice.

I put the Mommy version back on the shelf, and rarely read it. My husband and I laughed about it at first, but something about it really bothered me. When my daughter, Eliza, starting listening to books, I just never picked it up again. I like nurturing my children and meeting their needs. There is nothing wrong with that role for a mother or a father. Spot’s mom seems like a sweet mother. I just don’t need subtle messages sent to my daughter OR my son that women are less adventurous or have less career potential than men, or that men aren’t snuggly and nurturing. How would these books be interpreted by the growing number of stay-at-home dads who make breakfast and ice hurt knees? Families make choices, and children should grow up seeing that they have choices.

Everywhere we turn, gender stereotypes bombard our children. Between Disney princesses, superheroes, and even well-intentioned shows like Paw Patrol or Thomas the Tank Engine, both which feature more than 80% male characters, children cannot help but form assumptions about gender differences. Children’s literature is also full of messages about the differences between boys and girls, men and women and mothers and fathers. Our bookshelf is filled with classics, many of which are very traditional in their portrayal of gender roles. The difference between these and my Spot books is that many were written in the 1950s and ‘60s. It doesn’t make it completely okay, but I like to think we’ve made some progress since then.

The two Spot titles were published in 2006, nearly a decade after I graduated college and only two years before Robert was born. A few years later, Eric Hill followed up with Spot Loves His Grandma and Spot Loves His Grandpa (Hill, 2011). In the very first page of each, it is clear that these grandparents are the senior citizen versions of Spot’s parents.

“Grandpa is fun. He makes Spot laugh” while “Spot loves to visit his Grandma. There is always lots to do.” Hmmm, last time I polled my girlfriends, it is often the grandmas who know where the closest please-touch museums, playgrounds and pumpkin patches are located. They are not often enlisting their grandchildren in domestic chores. Sure, children should learn to help out around the house and work hard, but is it always the women in their lives who are putting them to work and the men who provide entertainment?

While it is a little disheartening to see such stereotypical messages in new children’s books, whether subtle or overt, I made a very reassuring discovery. While doing some brief web research on gender stereotypes in children’s literature, my Google searches returned mostly titles that aim to challenge gender stereotypes rather than reinforce them. It was actually more difficult to find lists of books with traditional gender stereotypes. An extensive body of literature exists to show our children that they are individuals who are free to explore their interests and achieve personal goals, regardless of their gender. A huge thanks to Pinky, Rex, the Paper Bag Princess, Ferdinand, and Oliver Buttons! Keep up the good work!

Bibliography

de Paolo, Tomie. Oliver Buttons is a Sissy. Orlando: Voyager Books, 1979.
HIll, Eric. Spot Loves His Daddy. New York: Penguin, 2006.
Hill, Eric. Spot Loves His Grandma. New York: Penguin, 2011.
HIll, Eric. Spot Loves His Grandma. New York: Penguin, 2011.
Hill, Eric. Spot Loves His Mommy. New York: Penguin, 2006.
Howe, James. Pinky & Rex. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.
Leaf, Munro. Ferdinand. Viking Press, 1936.

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