Have you ever heard the saying "boys will be boys"? Or "girls are so emotional"? These may seem like harmless phrases that explain our parenting experiences, but they may actually be limiting our children's potential.
We are always hearing about another new finding on the "many" differences between boys and girls - whether that's in how they learn, who's better at math, who's more aggressive, etc. Researcher Christia Spears Brown shares in her book "Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue" how these differences have either been exaggerated or made up. The few differences that are found consistently in research don't appear to be innate (because we don't see them in babies) but rather socialized, or in other words, adults train kids to behave in a certain way that is acceptable to society.
Although it's true that some differences exist, how we as parents think about gender largely influences how we interact with our children, which guides their choices and how they feel about themselves. In turn, whether we do this intentionally or not, we mold our children in unwanted ways through little things like which chores we assign to which kid. These actions lead to the differences we see, like girls developing less interest and self-confidence in math and boys demonstrating more unprovoked aggression. Children come with some preferences and interests, but in many ways, we train our children to follow gender stereotypes instead of encouraging them to develop their unique qualities.
Why is Gender Stereotyping Harmful?
While gender is an important characteristic of a person's identity, it really doesn't need to be emphasized as much as it is, in my opinion. It's about more than just letting a girl's favorite color be something other than pink -- stereotypical perceptions lead to rigid ideas of gender roles and skewed beliefs that "all" boys do one thing while "no" girls do that. Children end up paying little attention to individual differences, including their own, meaning they don't see what makes them special and unique. Also in children's minds, the stereotypes become exaggerated between boys and girls and the similarities among girls or boys become exaggerated as well. Overall, kids feel limited in many aspects of life including their career choices (only men can be police officers), ways of expressing themselves (boys don't cry), and even their preferences (girls dance and boys play a sport), which isn't necessary. On the other hand, living free of stereotypes and developing qualities associated with both men and women is shown to be the most adaptive way of living. Being gender neutral isn't the goal, but rather going beyond a simple stereotype to be the best you can be.
What You Can Do
What can we as parents do to fight the stereotypes and encourage our kids to become the best individuals they can be (instead of the most "lady-like" or "manly" they can be)?
- Talk to kids a lot, whether they are boys or girls. Talk about emotions and numbers equally to both genders.
- Encourage physical activity for all kids; this helps them develop in many ways.
- Read to them every night. This helps prepare them for school and learn a wide variety of things.
- Snuggle and wrestle! Boys need affectionate touch and girls need to develop gross motor abilities.
- Play sports with them. There are so many skills learned in sports no matter one's gender.
- Have them play with blocks, puzzles, mazes, and dolls. Girls should develop spatial abilities and boys need nurturing qualities to become caring human beings.
- Change your own expectations about kids based on gender. Kids look to parents for how to interpret the world and they adopt your views.
- Point out when your kids and those around them comment about stereotypes. Remind them that stereotypes are not always true and then bring up an example they have seen in their life, like a friend or relative, who goes against the stereotype.
- Encourage kids to recognize all the different qualities that make them unique and not focus so much on their gender.
Each child is unique and has different needs but these are just a few ideas to help parents encourage children to have all the opportunities they need to become the best they can be
For more information on parenting without stereotypes, refer to the book that most of these ideas came from: "Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue" by Christia Spears Brown.