In the wake of the #MeToo movement, one important conversation that people are having is how gender stereotypes and roles that we learn as kids affect adult relationships. Since children really are the future, the best place to start working on changing these dangerous stereotypes is to teach kids that gender isn’t the most important thing about a person.
Kids are bombarded with messages about gender roles from the moment they’re born, but you don’t have to read bell hooks to your children before bed to reverse the damage those stereotypes can cause (though bell hooks’s children’s books look like they’d make great bedtime stories!). In fact, there are a ton of common-sense, simple ways parents can challenge gender stereotypes in an age-appropriate way so that kids grow up with a more well-rounded idea about what gender really is and what it means to be a “boy” or a “girl” — and more importantly, what it doesn’t mean.
Christia Spears Brown, a developmental psychologist and the author of Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes, spoke to L.A. public radio station KPCC recently about the effects of gender stereotypes, saying, “Kids start to know…who’s strong, who is weak, who likes to cry, who’s aggressive. You start to see girls deferring to boys for things — and boys assuming they are in charge.”
Old-fashioned, patriarchal gender stereotypes hurt everyone, male or female. Teaching kids that there are some things that girls “can’t” have or that boys “don’t do” ends up leading to problems later on.
Like a woman feeling scared to let a man down on a date by not having sex with him, or a man not having repressing his feelings until they fester into a ball of rage. And yeah, it basically all starts at the age when our toddlers are playing with Barbies and toy dump trucks.
Here are a few ways parents can challenge gender norms in age-appropriate ways, without getting into the nitty-gritty of patriarchy every time you head to the toy store:
1Watch your words.
If you walk around the graphic tee aisle at Target, you’ll likely see a slew of T-shirts for girls that say they’re “strong” or “tough” — a way to reinforce the idea that girls can be tough and strong, which is totally true. But those kinds of characteristics and personality traits should be encouraged in both boys and girls. And having a personality trait doesn’t have to be tied to a gender at all.
When we coo “what a smart girl you are!” we’re only reinforcing that gender is a *thing* to be dealt with. It’s better to just not use the gendered word at all and opt for “kid” or “person” when talking about someone.
2And don’t feel bad about asking people to watch theirs.
Parenting is hard enough without having to be on the offensive all the time, but you shouldn’t have to apologize for telling your family and close friends to knock it off with the gender stereotypes in your house. If grandma insists on splitting up the cousins based on gender or only gifting them certain things, you have every right to remind them that “girl” and “boy” are concepts us grownups created.
3Remember that toys don’t have a gender.
Toys are for learning! It’s easy to see how blocks and Legos are for teaching skills, but dolls, for example, teach kids how to be nurturing, so we should give little boys something to take care of, too. Studies have found that kids do tend to play with toys that correspond to their prescribed gender, but researchers believe that has as much to do with biology as it does the fact that adults surround them with those kinds of toys from birth.
And this isn’t just about the kinds of toys we give kids — the colors of those toys matters, too. Gina Rippon, Professor Emeritus of Cognitive Neuroimaging at Aston University in the United Kingdom, told Forbes she recommends protecting kids from the “pink and blue tsunami” as early as possible so they don’t get stuck in color patterns early on.
4Call out sexism when you see it.
You can do everything in your power to raise your kids to ignore gender stereotypes, but it might take a while for the world to catch up with you. If you’re trying to throw your daughter a space- or pirate-themed birthday party and have to go to the “boy” aisle to find paper plates, shake your head and say how silly it is that the party themes are separate, since everyone can like the solar system and searching for buried treasure.
5Start conversations about gender.
A lot of kids’ movies and TV shows are getting better at eschewing gender stereotypes, but if you see the puppies on Paw Patrol force the girl dog into cleaning up or hear a Disney father tell his son to “man up,” you can call that out on the couch and engage your kids without actually talking about gender politics.
Likewise, asking them about what they’re doing on the playground and who gets to play what games at school is another way to figure out what gender stereotypes they’re faced with every day, and what they think about them. They might surprise you.
6Let kids play together.
Often, we start separating boys and girls really early on, or when we do let them play together, we tell them that they’re going to get married one day, which is just plain creepy. Instead of just making playdates with the parents who have kids the same gender as yours, cross the sandbox and invite the little boys to your daughter’s birthday party, too. Again, without insisting that it’s some sort of weird toddler prom.
The more you mix boys and girls up, the more gender-neutral their play will become, and it won’t be such a shocker when they hit puberty and finally have to learn to relate with each other. For some reason, the concept of “gender-neutral parenting” scares some people, but it’s not all that complicated. And it will end up being better for everyone in the long run.