Does this scenario sound familiar? You invite your young son to join you and your daughter for a movie, and he responds, “I’m not going to see that movie; it’s for girls.” While some parents may wince at that statement, others may be fine with it, and your personal reaction will define where you are on the gender-neutral parenting spectrum.
Though some parents still believe that pink is for girls and blue is for boys, it’s important to look and consider what message “rules” like these are sending to children. Research has actually shown that by telling your son or daughter that only girls grow their hair long or that only boys play with dump trucks, you may be teaching them to limit themselves. Slowly, and perhaps subconsciously, they may close themselves off from the full spectrum of options for self-expression, and, as such, they may be more susceptible to limiting themselves in their academic and extracurricular pursuits down the road.
Some parents may be reluctant to encourage their child to participate in something commonly thought of as gender-specific out of fear that he or she will be bullied. “What if they call her a tomboy for playing catcher?” “Will the other boys tease him for wearing pink?” It’s natural for parents to be concerned about protecting their children. Still, by caving into fear and redirecting a child’s interest into something more socially acceptable, the parent may be indirectly empowering a bully, or sending a message that it’s more important for the child to “fit in” than to explore his or her natural interests.
A single-sex educational environment can help counteract stereotypes. Here at Fessenden, for example, our educators notice that the absence of girls removes the pressure for boys to act a certain way. Boys no longer find it necessary to participate in an activity with the goal of impressing a girl; rather, they participate because they genuinely want to try something new. Conversely, they are less likely to avoid trying out a new activity because it doesn’t feel like something boys should do. A soccer player doesn’t feel ashamed of testing out his acting skills in the school play in a role often taken by a girl. Without gender stereotyping, boys experience a more positive educational climate.
In general, parents recognize that gender neutrality is a good thing, but how can you start the ball rolling towards teaching boys and girls about equality? How do you respond when your son dismisses a toy or activity by saying, “That’s for girls!”? Here are a few places to start.
1. Be aware that your actions are sending a message.
First, look in the mirror. Parents are the biggest influence in their child’s life, and they may not even realize when they are perpetuating stereotypes. Parents can make efforts to be more conscientious of their own behavior, and can also look to their spouse and other children to do the same. Is your oldest son interested in drawing, but dead-set against taking an art class because it’s “for girls?” If so, focus on changing his mindset, as well. You can’t protect your children from all outside influences, such as television shows, their friends, and, generally, what they see outside the walls of your home. Values within a family, however, have been proven to shield against media and other outside pressures.
2. Question and challenge your child about his opinions.
In response to “boys don’t wear pink,” ask him why boys don’t wear pink. Show him pictures of influential males wearing pink, such as his favorite actor or sports idol. Give him a logical, sound argument against his opinion that, in turn, will help him respond to his peers when he encounters gender-stereotyping.
Put a variety of toys out for them to choose what to play with on their own, or encourage a gender-neutral activity, such as swimming or finger-painting.
4. Finally, rather than discouraging behaviors that exemplify stereotypes, applaud behaviors that don’t.
For example, if you are watching a co-ed soccer team, say, “That goalie just made a great save!” rather than, “Wow! For a girl, she’s a really good goalie!” By pointing out those achievements and encouraging them, you are reinforcing gender-neutral conduct.
Children who are allowed to explore and be exactly who they naturally want to be often become well-rounded adults. That may mean that children choose roles and paths not traditionally occupied by their gender, but parents can feel good that the journey to those passions was not impeded by gender-specific expectations.