The book says ‘he’ but I like to say ‘she.’

When I’m reading books with my daughter I often find myself changing the genders of the characters. I get so frustrated by how many kids’ books have boys as the main character (because boys won’t read books about girls, so making the main character a boy makes it universal, duh!), not to mention how rare it is for parents in children’s books to be anything other than a mom and a dad. So I try to mix it up when I remember.

Sometimes, halfway through a book, I forget I’m supposed to be changing the gender pronouns and end up kind of switching back and forth, but my daughter doesn’t seem to mind—maybe she has a more fluid concept of gender than most adults.

Recently I started to wonder, what happens when she learns to read and figures out that all these animals in her books are actually written as boys? But then I thought, maybe I shouldn’t be trying to keep it a secret from her anyway. Much as I wish I could protect my kids from everything that’s wrong with the world, maybe it’s better to give them the tools to analyze and challenge it.

So the other day we were reading a book about a bear who is written as male but I make him female whenever I remember. After I had screwed up the gender pronoun for the third time, I decided to come clean. “The book says ‘he,’ but I like to say ‘she,’ because I think there are too many books with boys in them and not enough girls,” I explained.

I thought my daughter might freak out, because she’s three, and three year olds like girls to be girls and boys to be boys (at least mine does). But she didn’t, and so I continued. “Do you want the bear to be a girl or a boy?” I asked. “I want it to be a girl,” she said. And so we continued, consciously rejecting sexism together.

My hope is that my daughter will do better than me and not grow up automatically assigning male gender pronouns to any anthropomorphic animal. Is it just me or do we all do this?

Also, just to be clear, I intend to do just as much gender-switching when I read with my son, just as soon as he gets beyond the eating-the-pages stage. No way is he going to grow up thinking he can’t read books about girls.

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