Stereotypes are an inescapable fact of life. They are going to exist because (at least I think) it’s in human nature to over simplify things so that they fit into a neat little box or category. Most stereotypes, if not all, are somewhat damaging. Each time I have a child I am again overwhelmed with the responsibility to ensure that this child grows up to be a well-adjusted, well-respected and respectful, open minded, happy and successful individual who is a positive contribution to society. I want them to know that they are worthy of whatever they are willing to work for. I also want them to wholeheartedly value equal rights. In order to instil this value in my children I am always analysing my own behaviour and doing my best to ensure I am not covertly instilling negative or limiting stereotypes in their little minds. Gender stereotypes are the ones I am most conscious of. The bit of research that I’ve done on this (most of it is reading the works of Susan Witt and Laura Burk) states that the strongest influence on gender roles is the home and the parents, and secondly the children’s peers. I don’t actively swing the stereotypes in the opposite direction; I try to eliminate them all together. For example, some years ago I heard one of my sons asking my mum (his nanna) if he could have some lip stick. She responded with ‘No darling, this is not for boys’. I quickly corrected her saying that it has nothing to do with the fact that lipstick is either for girls or for boys, but rather that it is not for children. I told her that if she would let a little girl put on her lip stick then she had better let my son! Mum being an amazing, level headed woman who’s a big believer in the importance of gender equality immediately questioned her own behaviour and corrected herself; seemingly a little ashamed after reflecting on her comment.
With the over-the-top way gender roles are thrust in our faces on a daily basis, people can be forgiven for inadvertently falling victim to them. This is why it’s so incredibly important to challenge our own thinking every day. My first son took a real interest in dancing from a very young age. People actually said things to me like ‘you’d better slap that out of him before it happens at school’. My second son had a long standing infatuation with tights from when he was about one and half to three and a half. If we were shopping for clothes for him and he wanted the pink tights with frills around the ankles, I did not try to talk him into buying the more typically boyish clothes. Why should I? Many friends questioned how far I would let this go… would you let him out in public wearing a dress? Well, yes I would. Why not? The only reason I could think of was perhaps to avoid my own embarrassment when people looked strangely at a boy in a dress. Well, that’s rather selfish if you ask me. Why should my children be told to dress a certain way to protect me? My son couldn’t care less about how people were looking at him. Why would I attempt to rid him off that innocence so early? It nearly tipped me over the edge when people asked if I was worried that I was going to turn him gay…. There aren’t words to explain my emotional response to the ridiculousness of this.
I have learnt to question my own assumptions and I think it is something that all people should make a conscious effort to do. It surprises me how often I think something just because society has programmed me to; even though when I dig down to the underpinning values I completely don’t agree with them. It is obvious to me that people who have clear and well defined values make decisions they can be happy with. I value open-mindedness, I value equal rights. I want to instil these values in my children. Therefore, as often as possible when I’m allowing or not allowing them to do something or when I’m teaching them something, I question why. If there isn’t a good reason, a reason that’s in line with my values system, I seriously reconsider whatever it was.
Did you know that two year olds are aware of adult sex role differences? That’s how early children can think that’s a mum’s job or that’s what dad’s do. There’s a lot of research that says parents treat sons and daughters differently. I don’t believe I would, but I guess I can’t be sure since I only have sons. However; their bedrooms (from birth) have been gender neutral… I’m not one to decorate anyway. They have clothes of all colours and with all types of designs – motorbikes, flowers, dinosaurs, polka dots, trucks, fairies etc. Their toys have been whatever they’re interested in at the time –Lego, bikes and scooters and skates and skateboards, trucks and cars, dolls, tea sets, sporting equipment, cooking equipment, art and craft equipment, musical instruments, the list goes on. They are most definitely allowed to do things based on whether they are age appropriate not gender appropriate, as is the case with their jobs around the house. When they hurt themselves I respond appropriately for how bad the accident or injury was rather than just telling them to get up and dust it off because they’re a boy.
Every day I am met with comments from people that just make me angry. When I’m talking about my children struggling to listen to me or being in trouble at school, I am often met with oh he’s just a boy. What is that teaching my boys? That it’s okay to be disrespectful if you’re male? Or that stupid infuriating comment what are you going to do when they grow up? A son is a son til he takes him a wife; a daughter’s a daughter for the rest of your life. Well, I mean, I guess I’ll have to get back to you in 10-20 years, but you’ve got to be kidding me? Maybe that’s what happens to parents who treat their boys with a lack of compassion because they’re meant to be all independent, tough and unemotional. I’m (not so quietly) confident that won’t be the case with my boys.
Plenty of research suggests that gender stereotyping limits opportunities. This makes sense. If you’re only exposed to half of what’s possible out there, you’re only going to have half the opportunities. Who wants that for their children? There’s also research out there that shows that children who are less traditional in their beliefs and behaviour have a higher self-esteem, more successful relationships, higher levels of identity achievement and more. Don’t we want these things for our children? My children have seen both me and their father: Mow the lawn, cook and clean, play competitive sport, wash and hang out the clothes, be compassionate towards them, fix the car (and other things), go to work, be the stay at home parent, bathe them, read to them, wrestle with them.. I feel like we do a great job of demonstrating gender equality. Then, when our children make comments that are limiting towards one gender, they are taught otherwise. I know this is working, because our eleven year old now corrects our four year old when he says things like boys can run faster than girls.
I could write forever about this, as I could most things I’m passionate about, but I will finish with one last story. When I was pregnant with my fourth child (and had three sons already) I was constantly asked, are you hoping for a girl? Or even, you must be trying for a girl. People told me they were praying on my behalf! Some people even went so far as to suggest that if we’d had a mix of the genders already we wouldn’t be having a fourth child! We never found out the gender of our babies because we genuinely didn’t care and never had a preference. When I would respond informing them that we didn’t have a preference, I think people thought I was lying to them (and to myself actually). When I had the courage I would say something like, I think you’re the one hoping for a girl. Then we were met with the ridiculous, well, if it’s a girl you’ll need all new stuff. Seriously? Firstly, all our stuff is pretty non-gender specific anyway, and secondly; um what? What planet are people on? What does a little girl need that a little boy doesn’t and vice-versa. I just can’t comprehend it. I really do think that one of the (many) problems with our society is that we overuse the words girl, boy, woman and man and underuse the words child, adult and person. I think more people need to actively challenge their own thoughts and assumptions and question why. If more people were more aware of their values, beliefs and assumptions, and were more aware of whether or not their actions are in line with them, our world would be a better place. At least I hope so.