Typically, one of first questions asked when a family announces a pregnancy is: “Is it a boy or a girl?” One might step back and wonder, why do we care?
As a society, we seem to have an innate interest in identifying and categorizing by sex. This is true even in an era when many modern parents (and even major stores like Target) are moving away from the boy/girl, blue/pink dichotomy.
Childhood development experts tell us that most children do not embrace a gender identity until they are about two or three years old. Unless you’re fixed on relatively recent trends in color palettes (pink was actually considered masculine and blue quite feminine until the 21st century), a baby’s sex should really only be an issue at diaper-changing or bath times. Furthermore, imposing expectations on a child based his or her sex can have a harmful impact on that child’s individual development.
How to Create a Supportive Environment for All Genders
There are several strategies available for those who wish to avoid reinforcing gender stereotypes in children.. For instance, parents and guardians can use language that goes beyond appearance when talking with young girls, asking less about clothing and hairstyles and more about interests and experiences. Adults can also encourage young girls to participate in active play, and ensure that they are not sharing or helping at a higher rate than their male peers.
Similarly, it’s important to send the message to young boys that nurturing behavior, showing their emotions, listening, and playing well as part of a group are to be rewarded. Adults can make it a habit to ask young boys how they are feeling, and to present positive examples of communicating emotions. If parents and caretakers make a conscious effort to share these lessons with the next generation, many harmful gender stereotypes may die out.
In discussing children and gender, we should also acknowledge our growing understanding of the challenges faced by transgender individuals. Those who care for young children need to be aware of honoring and recognizing the changing needs of those who do not feel at home in the bodies into which they were born. Being more open and flexible regarding naming, dress, and other avenues of gender expression could help prevent the assaults and suicides that affect transgender youth at alarming rates. Although we still have a long way to go as a society in considering transgender issues, today’s families have access to more extensive resources than ever to broach these topics. Many excellent children’s books explore transgender issues in an age-appropriate format, and can be great sources of information and comfort to young readers.
Combating gender stereotypes doesn’t have to end at home. In the classroom, teachers can partner with parents by encouraging girls’ participation in STEM fields where women are underrepresented. They can ensure that all children, regardless of gender, have the opportunity for physical activity, which will in turn allow learners to focus on academics when required. They can highlight varying career paths to which girls and boys may aspire, from doctor to lawyer to police officer to teacher, and avoid false binary phrases such as “that’s just for girls” or “boys will be boys.” Finally, teachers can allow dedicated time for coeducation; some age groups may self-select into exclusively single-sex interactions if left to their own devices, but would benefit from interactions with all peers.
Both parents and teachers can call out sexist language and behavior when it occurs, whether it’s coming from the children themselves or from less sensitive adults. By modeling respectful interactions with members of all sexes and avoiding putting down others for adhering to or bucking gender stereotypes, we can remind our children that there are a myriad of ways to be a girl or a boy.