This week I am taking issue with homework. Specifically my daughter’s grammar homework on gerunds. Ordinarily I have an almost insatiable appetite for grammar, and gerunds are a particular favourite. (Refresher for people less obsessed with grammar than I am: gerunds are when you use an -ing word as a noun, as in ‘My dancing is a constant source of embarrassment to my children.’)
I particularly love them when they are in Latin. Think of all the great Latin phrases that have gerunds and are still in use today… Modus operandi (or MO) meaning ‘way of operating’, a phrase beloved of all TV cop shows. Nunc est bibendum (now is the time for drinking), popular with Latin poets and care-worn mummies everywhere. You might question how popular the phrase nunc est bibendum actually is, but I’m very excited by gerunds nonetheless. (And if you’re wondering, yes, even I know that makes me a bit weird.)
But my excitement at my eldest child’s homework quickly dissipated when she got to gerund Blankety Blank, and the last sentence she had to fill in was:
My dad’s job is BLANK, but my mum does all the BLANK.
This is not good. This sentence does not lend itself to empowering answers about what women can achieve. It does not lend itself to answers like
My dad’s job is watching re-runs of Top Gear, but my mum does all the high-powered lawyering (I don’t by the way, but you see what I mean).
This sentence lends itself to answers like my daughter gave, answers in which my job apparently counts for nothing because what I do is ‘all the cooking and washing’.
This made me full-on, head-spinning crazy. I ranted that I have obviously wasted my time trottering away at work all day, because clearly it’s only the cooking and washing I do that counts. In fact, I went so crazy that even my husband (who actually works very hard, and hardly gets to spend any time watching re-runs of Top Gear) looked slightly afraid.
But this is a serious point. The conjunction ‘but’ is used to create a contrast – ‘my dad’s job is…, but my mum… (by implication doesn’t have a job). Or, to put it another way ‘this homework taught my daughter about gerunds, but it misled her about what I do all day’. Even though I hope I am role modelling being a smart working mum, it only took one sentence in my daughter’s homework to reduce me to a domestic servant.
I think there are a couple of things we can learn from this:
- I have an obsession with grammar that is bordering on unhealthy. (Although if you think loving grammar is a bit ‘special interest’, you should probably know about my fetish for Victorian cemeteries.)
- Children are influenced by everything around them. What they learn now sets their expectations for the future. So let’s not give them homework that implies men have jobs and women don’t. Let’s not tell them stories in which girls are passive princesses while boys save the day (I’m looking at you Early Learning Centre). Let’s expand their horizons, not narrow their aspirations.
If you don’t think this stuff makes a difference, read this article about the impact of ‘labelling’ things blue for boys and pink for girls. Luckily organisations like Let Toys Be Toys are challenging the stereotypes (and also have an insightful and often amusing twitter account). It’s certainly an eye-opener about how many limiting messages girls are presented with.
Lastly, returning to the grammatical theme of this blog, I know you don’t need it, but I would like to leave you with a final reminder: grammar is powerful – use your conjunctions with care!!!
Thanks to Good Housekeeping for the picture at the top of the blog (it comes from an article arguing that children have too much homework), Huffington Post for the ironing image (it comes from an article about how women have jobs but still do all the housework, and Not just another millenial for the ‘Keep calm’ poster.