Gender Stereotypes – Day 2

I ran a free online 5 day course on social justice parenting last year and I recently rediscovered the pdfs so thought I’d pop them here so they don’t get lost again:

Hello again and today we’re talking gender stereotypes. 

What exactly are they? Well, gender stereotypes are fixed ideas or preconceptions about characteristics or the roles that should be performed by men and women but they manifest and start their damage before children are even born! Gender stereotypes are harmful as they limit everyone’s capacity to develop their personalities, their tastes, their skills, their chosen path in life- basically who they are- as they perpetuate damaging and often dangerous inequalities for everyone. 

So, how do they show up in our children’s lives? They rear their ugly heads before your child is even born and nothing exemplifies this better than the gender reveal party or the traditionally colour coded baby shower. Then once your baby is born, they are EVERYWHERE- pink frilly and incredibly impractical clothing for little girls with super cutesy slogans that let the world know she’s ‘adorable’ and blue, dinosaur, tractor, superhero emblazoned clothes for your very own ‘little dude.’ We are more likely to give girls toys that develop their nurturing side such as dolls and small world play and boys are more likely to be given toys tht develop their spatial awareness and gross motor skills. Toy shops are a deluge of gendered marketing and that’s before we even look at the vastly different ways that adults speak to boys and girls. 

Let’s talk about how these pervasive stereotypes impact our children:

The pink and blue binary doesn’t just impact how children see themselves but also how we see them. Studies show that parents actually talk less to their sons than daughters, which not only means that by the age of 5 boys are twice as likely to fall behind in language and communication skills but parents use far more emotional language with their daughters, which means they are far better equipped when it comes to reading, playing, sharing knowledge and articulating their feelings. By the age of 7, children are starting to develop very fixed ideas about differences between men and women and by age 9, the average girl’s confidence will peak. There is also a huge difference in the perceived intelligence of boys and girls, which means that boys are far more likely to overestimate their own intelligence while girls will always generally underestimate their abilities and this is mirrored in how the adults in their lives see them too. Girls’ participation in sports starts to drop after year 4- at the age of 8/9- and recently 1 million girls said they had lost interest in sports as teenagers with a lack of confidence and a fear of being judged being the most common reasons. All of these things are inextricably linked and when woven together, creates a society of inequality for all children but a particularly dangerous one for girls. 

One of the most devastating prevailing outcomes of a society entrenched in gender stereotypes is rape culture and the violence against women epidemic. Rape culture is a culture that has completely usualised and even trivialised sexual assault and abuse. For example, 37% of girls in mixed sex schools have experienced sexual harrassment (not assault) which rape has pretty much been decriminalised and 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence. In fact, studies show that men who hold strong gender stereotyped beliefs are at a higher risk of becoming violent towards a partner. 

Another devastating outcome is the male mental health crisis- men account for 75% of deaths by suicide. I just want to remind you of how the way we speak to our children when they’re young directly impacts how they experience and discuss their emotions. 

So what can we do? Rape culture and violence against women are systems that are upheld and reinforced by raising children within the strict binaries of traditional gender stereotypes- not to mention the pain and confusion these binaries can cause gender non-conforming kids. Raising kids without them? Literally a win-win for everyone but it is especially freeing for your children. 

I have 3 tips to help you start dismantling those pesky stereotypes at home now:

  • Do not engage in gender reveals- a fixation on an unborn child’s- or any child’s- genitals is super creepy while also ignoring the very existence of intersex, trans and non-binary kids. It’s the starting point of a lifetime of dangerous stereotyping. 
  • Think about your child’s spheres of influence. When they are so little, we are their worlds and completely in control of what they wear, the toys they play with and the language they hear. But as they grow so do their spheres of influence- extended family, nursery then school, friends and classmates, their friend’s families, people they are exposed to out in the wider community. Some of these you are in control of and some you are not and we have to accept that. The influences that you are in control of- you are in control of! You have every right to explain to family members and friends not to speak to your child in a certain way or to decline gifted toys and clothing because they enforce something you don’t agree with. And if your child does end up with the blue Paw Patrol t-shirt with ‘be a hero’ written across it like mine, you have not failed at single handedly deconstructing patriarchal norms. 
  • Pay attention to what your child is exposed to and discuss it with them in an age appropriate way. Look at the way gender- and race, class, disability and religion- are represented in the books, tv shows, films your children watch (we will be looking at this further on Thursday).  A really simple trick for reading to children who can’t read yet is to change pronouns and names in stories and nursery rhymes. For example, we sing Little Ollie had a dolly who was sick, sick, sick and the doctor he calls for is a woman. 

Now, today’s challenge is linked to this. Our own language is such an accessible and impactful thing to change. It has to be done consciously and mindfully but once you are aware of how gendered our language is, honestly, you can’t unsee it! So, when talking to and around your child, try to not use the words girl or boy, just use child (unless what you’re discussing is directly linked to their gender). For example, shall we wait for our turn on the slide because this child was here first. It doesn’t matter if that child has long hair, a pink frilly dress and glittery shoes- they are a child first and foremost and we don’t get to make assumptions about their identity. Do the same with man/woman- they just became people/folk/grown up- whatever you like. Be mindful of suffixes and gently remind your child anyone can be a firefighter/police officer/astronaut etc

Raising children without gender stereotypes is not about dressing your child in beige clothing and ‘political correctness gone mad’ but raising children without limits on who they are and what they can achieve. It’s about understanding that their capacity for happiness, wonder, adventure and softness should never, ever be defined by their gender identity.

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