Author Ritu Vaishnav talks about her children’s book Pink and Blue, published by Puffin, which aims at getting parents to initiate conversations around gender stereotypes with children at an early age. She wants little boys and girls to overcome the thinking that “pink is for girls, blue is for boys; girls play house, boys play cricket; cry like a girl, kick like a boy.”
What prompted your book Pink and Blue?
When my son was about two years old, his favourite colours were pink and blue. Soon after he started play school, he came home and declared that he no longer wanted to use anything pink since it was a “girl” colour and boys weren’t supposed to have pink things. It made me realise that despite the environment at home, kids were bound to be bombarded with gender stereotypes the moment they stepped into the world outside. I wanted to have a conversation with him about this but couldn’t find a book that would help me do so. So as they say, if you can’t find a book you are looking for…
Why do we need a book like this in this day and age? Do you think parents and extended family still need to be reminded to enforce the right message to kids?
Oh, absolutely! How many families do we know where gender has nothing to do with the way responsibilities or roles are divided at home? I think in many explicit and implicit ways, we are constantly sending messages to our kids reinforcing gender roles and gender expectations. From the kind of activities we nudge them into to the toys and colours of things we buy for them, we are constantly and without even thinking about it, emphasising gender differences. Look at the birthday gifts our kids get. How many people consider gifting a kitchen set to a boy or a cricket set to a girl? How are we assuming it’s not for them? We are simply passing our own gender biases to them. It’s also not uncommon to hear boys being told “don’t cry like a girl”. I’ve heard my boy being told that in our own extended family! I’ve had clients in my bookstore asking for “pink story books” because it’s a gift for a girl! And it’s not just an Indian problem.
Multiple surveys and researches across countries, even in the most developed ones, show that gender stereotypes and expectations are passed on to kids really early through families, peers and media and there is a need to start talking to them about it much earlier.
Where do you think such behaviour comes from and how can it be countered early on?
Kids learn about gender-appropriate behaviour primarily from the adults around them, their peers, the media and the way toys and kids’ products are marketed at them. Fortunately, the messages that stick the strongest at this age are the ones coming from parents or teachers. So the best thing we can do is talk, talk, talk to them. Know what is going on in their lives and their minds and constantly offer them an alternate view every time they mouth a stereotype. We have to teach them to question these instead of internalising them. We must also teach them to be more tolerant, inclusive and respectful when they come across a kid who may not adhere to a particular stereotype. Honest conversations where you are not talking down to a child are a great parenting tool.
Any anecdotes to share from conversations with your son?
My son is six and we are both rather talkative so there’s a lot of conversation! But like all kids, he has his moods. There are days where he’ll just not want to talk and others when he’ll come up himself and say, “let’s chit-chat”. We have been talking about how there are no boy colours or girl colours or no boy toys or girl toys for a few years now. The other day he told me, “Mumma, I’m going to say that boys like dragons and dinosaurs and girls like fairies and princesses.”
I just looked up and he said, “Just listen to me! I know girls can also play with dragons and dinosaurs, but mostly the girls in my class don’t like to play with them much. They mostly play with fairies and princesses and boys in my class don’t play with those that much.” Now I can’t deny what he has correctly observed.
After fumbling for a response, I said, “Fair enough! As long as you know that there might be some girls who might like to play with dinosaurs and dragons and that’s okay and you can’t tell them these toys aren’t for them. And it’s okay if a boy wants to play with a fairy toy. You can’t make fun of him. Not all kids will like the same things.” So he nodded and said, “Yes, yes, I understand.” Stereotypes exist. Our kids will notice them. But they should know that it’s okay to not strictly adhere to them and to respect individual choices.
You also run a children’s bookstore. Any observations on reading trends?
The store is called KoolSkool and is based in Gurgaon. We have a loyal client base of voracious young readers, so the habit is far from dead, as opposed to what many people think. Yes, most parents want their kids to read, considering the benefits and the emphasis on it in most schools. As far as broad trends are concerned, Julia Donaldson and Peppa Pig remain the most popular in the picture book segment. Roald Dahl, Wimpy Kid and Harry Potter still remain the most sought after by the primary and middle-grade readers and John Green is a huge favourite among young adults. Humour done well always works with kids. But these are just very generic trends. Young readers are spoilt for choice today with a huge variety of brilliant authors and genres available to them.
How can parents get their children interested in reading and why is it important?
Kids tend to enjoy things that their parents enjoy as well. Go with your kids to bookstores. Let them browse. Pick books together. Don’t force your likes on them. Let them find a book that they connect with. Spend some time everyday enjoying a book or two together. Reading has many, many benefits. It develops their vocabulary, language skills, thinking skills but more importantly, it teaches them to understand other perspectives and if they do learn to read for pleasure, it is a habit that’ll bring them joy throughout their lives.
What is the target age for your book? Can you suggest a reading list for kids?
My book is for ages two to six years, but works as a good starting conversation about gender stereotypes for any age group. I recently met a teacher who picked it up for her parents. It’s very hard to suggest books randomly without knowing the child. Some kids would be awaiting their first picture book and would probably not sit through more than one sentence per page while others might have already moved on to longer stories. So let me name some of my favourites.
For those who are just starting out:
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
The Eye Book
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt
Snail and the Whale
Penguins Can’t Fly
Lost & Found
Giraffes Can’t Dance
Even longer stories:
Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That series