Children take their cues from the adults in their lives. They watch their parents and behave accordingly. These cues turn into what our children learn is “normal.”
Early on, children learn that boys and girls are supposed to act in certain ways. They watch what their moms do and assign those roles to all moms. If their moms cook, then all moms and girls cook. They watch their dads and do the same thing. If dad fixes the car, then all dads and boys fix their cars. And that friends, is how gender roles are born!
These roles aren’t as clearly defined as they once were. Moms aren’t the only ones doing the cooking and dads aren’t the only ones fixing cars these days.
As gender roles have shifted in society, the things we teach our children have shifted as well. Boys can have long hair, wear pink, play with dolls, or play dress up. Girls can have short hair, wear t-shirts and gym shorts, play in the dirt with trucks, or build robots. Not only what we do as moms and dads, but how we react to these behaviors is what normalizes them to our children.
If you see a boy with long hair and say “Doesn’t that boy’s hair look nice?” then your children will likely agree and not think twice.
Likewise, if your son plays with dolls at home, then he’s not going to think there’s anything wrong with any other boy playing with dolls. And if your daughter builds with Legos and climbs trees in the backyard, then she’s probably going to assume her friends will enjoy the same things.
But gender socialization (this learning of gender norms) doesn’t just come from adults. It’s also shaped by our children’s peers. Eventually your daughter will come home from school and say that a boy told her girls aren’t as smart as boys or your son will say that kids in his class pick on him because he plays with girls at recess. Those children learned different, often outdated, cues.
You may teach your children that they can be whoever they want, but the kids they socialize with aren’t always being taught the same thing. As much as it’s unfortunate, you have to be prepared to answer questions if your children are being teased or if they see someone else being teased or bullied because of what they find “normal.”
You’ve taught them that they can like what they want, play what they want, and be anything they want, but they’re the ones who are going to be confronted by peers who see “normal” differently. Discussing the fact that not everyone thinks the same way they do and answering questions will help them react if they find themselves in a situation where their choices are being questioned.
Some great responses to teach your children are:
“There are no such thing as boys’ toys or girls’ toys.”
“Boys and girls can play together.”
“Why does it matter if a girl’s hair is short or a boy’s hair is long?”
“There is no one way for girls or boys to act/look/learn/play.”
“These are the kinds of things I like to wear/play. Why do you like to wear/play what you do?”
For more examples of questions and answers you can talk about with your child, try WelcomingSchools. Although the site was created to helping teachers talk about gender stereotypes in their classrooms, it provides a list of great example questions your child might encounter in school along with responses like the ones above that you can use to start a discussion.
Along with discussing the possible questions they might face, it’s also a good idea to talk with your children about why the normal in your house is just as good as anyone else’s. If your son likes to help in the kitchen, talk about how life skills are important for anyone to learn and assigning them to one gender is silly. Doesn’t everyone need to learn how to cook themselves dinner? If your daughter loves to be outside playing basketball with her brother, focus on how her athleticism will help her live a healthy lifestyle and how learning to maneuver on the basketball court can translate into maneuvering through the challenges she’ll face in life.
Even though being themselves at home is easy, it’s not always easy when they’re being confronted by their peers. The more your children understand that it’s okay to be who they are, the more confident they’ll be in being themselves when they’re out in the world full of everyone else’s “normals.”
There will still be times when your brave and confident children don’t feel like being different or aren’t quite sure they want to stand up and defend their choices because they’re not the choices of their peers. Being the only boy in class with long hair or the only girl who plays ninjas on the playground can take its toll on a kid. It’s also important that they know you’re there to listen and help them figure it all out.
Changing the way other children understand gender isn’t something just one child can change during one afternoon on the playground. Be prepared for more than one conversation. Let them know that everyone has different opinions and different “normals” and that’s okay. Make them feel comfortable with themselves and comfortable sticking to what they believe when other kids question it.
Empowering your children to be who they want to be rather than who someone else wants them to be is one of the most powerful tools you can give them. With that being said, being different isn’t always easy. But if you make sure that they’re heading out the door with the knowledge of who they are and why that’s okay, knowing that some people see things differently, they’ll feel good about themselves and have the skills to explain their choices.
Today girls don’t have to be sugar and spice and everything nice, and boys are generally more than snips and snails and puppy dogs’ tails. Because times have changed. And that’s a good thing.
Read one Mom’s efforts to eliminate gender roles for her children: Why We Need to Free Our Children from the Weight of Gender Roles.