Parents have plenty of reasons to fight against traditional gender stereotypes. We want our girls to pursue STEM careers, we want our boys to feel comfortable expressing sadness or fear, and we also want to not assume that their outward gender appearance is their internal gender identity.
But as the world grapples with the prevalence of sexual violence, as highlighted repeatedly by the #MeToo movement, there is another reason to actively avoid adherence to conventional gender stereotypes: By adolescence, those stereotypes can begin to fuel sexual violence. The Washington Post reports:
Research has shown that, compared with other teen boys, those who endorse strong gender stereotypes — for instance, that it’s natural for boys to want to admire girls and that girls should use their looks and bodies to attract men — are more likely to make sexual comments about and grab girls’ bodies. This is in part because during the teen years, male gender stereotypes start to incorporate ideals of male dominance, aggression and sexual callousness, while female ideals start to centre on sexuality and attractiveness.
Our focus on gender starts innocently enough with gender reveal parties, “Daddy’s Little Princess” T-shirts for baby girls and bins full of trucks for toddler boys. But it continues as kids get older and begin to internalise how toys are marketed to a specific gender, how boys are pushed toward sports and girls are encouraged to take up ballet or music.
Kids take their cues from us and the world around them and those cues help them begin to categorise themselves and others. We can’t possibly avoid all of it, but there are some things parents can do — particularly while our kids are little — to influence how much they buy in to those norms.
Your words matter
Here’s an easy one to start with — when you’re talking about your child and other kids, swap out “girls” and “boys” whenever possible with “kids,” “friends” or “students.” To constantly categorise kids by gender is to give it inflated importance.
That’s not to say you should never acknowledge gender or even point out when you see or hear something that reinforces stereotypes; you should. You might say things like, “Hm, I wonder why all the scientists in this story are boys,” which can get them thinking critically about how gender roles are depicted in books and shows. And when they bring stereotypes home from school — “pink is a girl colour” or “dinosaurs are for boys” — ask them if they can think of reasons why that might not be true. You might ask, “Don’t you know any boys who like pink?” or “Well, your cousin Emma loves dinosaurs, and she’s not a boy.”
By questioning these stereotypes at home, you are helping them develop the skills to question them out in the world, too. As they get older, talk with them about sexism the same way you talk with them about racism so that, as the Post points out, they’re not drawing their own conclusions:
Without any knowledge of gender discrimination, kids are more likely to attribute the hierarchical differences they see in society, such as the fact that we have never had a female president, to innate differences between the sexes. Many will assume that women haven’t been elected because they aren’t good leaders or don’t want to be president.
While we’re adjusting the way we talk about gender, let’s also ditch the use of the word “tomboy.” A girl who prefers shorts and pants to dresses, is athletic, not particularly into dolls but likes to climb trees is a just a girl with those preferences. She doesn’t need to be defined or labelled by how much of a “boy” those things make her.
Plan co-ed play
It happens innocently enough — your little girl and another little girl at preschool become inseparable. You like the other girl’s parents and the frequent playdates begin. And that’s great! But especially when they’re very little and haven’t yet completely separated by gender at recess, you should encourage cross-gender interactions.
Host playground playdates with a mix of boys and girls from that preschool class. Have all the neighbourhood kids over to play after school or sign your kids up for co-ed sports or clubs. Then when they get older and a couple of girls want to join the boys’ kickball game at recess, it won’t seem like such a big deal.
Meet them where they are
If your daughter loves princess dresses — the more poofy and sparkly, the better — that’s ok! If your son lives and breathes trains, no problem! The point is not to steer them away from things they have a natural interest in that are traditionally associated with their gender. The point, as Whit Honea of Dads 4 Change says in this video for the The Atlantic, is for them to be themselves.
I’m not saying, “Oh, you can’t ever talk to your girls about bunnies if they like bunnies; you can only talk to them about science.” Meet them where they are, and same with boys. By no means do I want to imply that it’s wrong for kids to embrace things that they enjoy just because it falls on one side or the other; just that it shouldn’t be mandated by us.
As with anything else, kids will mostly pick up what their parents model for them, so splitting up household chores and duties based more on what each partner likes to do or is good at, rather than by traditional gender roles, is a good example to set.