Saturday, November 5, 2011

When girls play with trucks and boys wear tutus

While we all aim to let kids be kids, it’s important not to influence them with gender stereotypes
Before I had children I hoped I would one day have a daughter.
Having come from a family of mostly boys, I worried I would end up with a football team, and no opportunity to indulge in playing Barbies, and become a “ballet mum”.
However, why should I have worried about these things, when playing with dolls and dancing is perfectly fine for boys as well as girls?
Now I’ve got two daughters who love pink, dolls, dancing and all things girlie, and I’m clearly guilty of gender stereotyping.
It worries me that I’m not passing on a message of equality between the sexes.
Children learn gender stereotypes from adults, the media, religion, toys, clothes, books and their peers.
Right from the start, parents are painting the nursery in blue or pink, and from then on the gender differences carry on throughout their childhood.
Finding gender neutral clothes and toys is not always easy, but what we can do as parents is choose how we act and behave.
We can behave like the stereotypes and act out gender roles in relationships, or we can challenge our children to view their parents as equals.
For example, if Dad does some of the cooking, then his son will see that it is a perfectly normal thing to do.
This is a huge challenge for my family as I do tend to follow the traditional housewife stereotype while my husband is the breadwinner (although before kids both of our careers were of equal importance).
I try to provide a variety of toys for my daughters from the traditional dolls and dress-ups, to blocks, Lego, cars and trains, but it is fascinating the way children have a natural inclination to follow gender specific pursuits.
For example, my daughter’s best friend is her next door neighbour Charlie, aged 5.
They play lots of role-playing games and while Charlie wants to be a dinosaur or an astronaut on a rocket ship, Laura wants to play mummies and babies.
What’s nice is that they compromise and play both games.
So if your daughter wants to ride a motorbike, or your son wants to wear a tutu, it’s okay, and it’s not going to cause them long term damage. 
In fact, it may well be healthy as boys who play with dolls will learn to be more nurturing and verbally expressive, while girls who kick a soccer ball around will learn spatial skills and confidence.
Although we want our children to feel free to express who they are and follow whatever interests them, we also have a duty to protect them from potential backlash.
A boy wearing a pink hat to school may be teased by his peers, while a girl who cuts her hair really short may be shunned by her friends.
Finding a balance is certainly not easy.
In recent news we’ve seen the Canadian parents who decided not to share the sex of their newborn, named Storm, as “a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation”.
And in Stockholm, Sweden, a preschool has been carefully planned to make sure the children don’t fall into gender stereotypes.
From staff who avoid using the words “him” or “her”, to the colour and placement of toys, the preschool is on a mission to break down gender roles.
While these are extreme cases, the problem children face is that gender expectations are firmly rooted in our culture.
With this in mind, the best way to parent boys and girls is to counteract the negative messages that society sends them.
Girls need to learn that there is more to life than meeting a prince, that dump trucks are cool, that maths and science can lead to great careers, that while it’s okay to be pretty ad nurturing, you can also be strong and smart, and that no one is allowed to hit them ever.
Boys need to learn that it is okay to cry and express your emotions, that it’s okay to like flowers, pretty colours and cute furry animals, that they can play with dolls, that they can be stay-at-home fathers, that women are people not objects, that while it’s okay to be strong, you can also be nurturing, and that violence is not acceptable ever.


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