I am Mom to a one year old girl, and I’m still learning about the type of parent I want to be. Recently, I have been thinking a lot about gender, and how my actions directly affect the way my child will grow up seeing herself and seeing others.
I saw a post going around where a step-mother had painted her step-son’s toe nails to show him that nail polish wasn’t “just for girls.” There are a multitude of similar posts all over social media; mothers letting their sons buy dresses, letting their daughters play with trucks, fathers buying makeup for their sons, and little girls demanding to know why their T-Shirt slogans don’t say anything about adventure.
In the comments of these posts you’ll find many people of all backgrounds denouncing these things, claiming “this is what’s wrong with the world today.” This statement implies that there is something inherently wrong with crossing gender boundaries. I don’t blame these people for having this belief. We have all been raised within this worldview. As little girls we grow up wearing pretty dresses and are given play kitchens. We see that the TV shows advertised to us are centered around princesses and talking animals. Little boys grow up in a world where they’re expected not to be sensitive. They’re expected to be rough-and-tumble, messy, and mean. They watch adventure shows and movies about superheroes and cars. Only recently has it become socially acceptable to cross gender lines, but in many towns across the US and in many countries this is still a huge taboo.
I have always been open to those of various gender identity. I have never had a problem with using preferred pronouns and names. I also have never actively tried to change my own gender prejudices and have never really evaluated my own stereotyped beliefs. Gender distinction shouldn’t be strict. Pink princesses are not just for girls and dinosaurs are not just for boys. Every single thing that babies and toddlers are exposed to will shape the adults they become. Children use categories to learn about complex concepts. If little girls are only handed Barbies and play kitchens, they will start to assume that those things belong in the category of “girl.” If little boys only get footballs and cars, that is what they will assume belongs in the category of “boy.” When they begin to socialize with each other, these stereotypes become reinforced. Little boys will exclude girls from games of soccer because “this is a boy’s game and girls can’t play!” Little girls will make fun of the boy who wants to paint his nails, because that’s what girls do and boys aren’t allowed.
Some people might say these innocent childhood messages aren’t a bad thing. They might, in fact, argue that it’s a good thing because they believe that boys shouldn’t dress like girls and girls shouldn’t dress like boys. I am not here to argue that opinion. This is an issue that goes beyond gender identification. This doesn’t just affect the transgender community, it affects everyone. The more stereotypes we believe as children, and the more that gets reinforced to us, the less likely we are to accept any type of gender role switch. For example, women are expected to stay at home with the children while men earn the money. Even when a woman does work, she is still expected to do the majority of the housework and child rearing. If both parents work, it is typically the mother that is expected to call off for a sick child or leave early in an emergency. This, in turn, leads to women earning less on average as they miss out on hours and lose out on promotion opportunities. It isn’t that companies are maliciously paying women less, it is that women are less likely to put their careers above their families. On the flipside of this, men who choose to be the stay at home parent are often ridiculed. They’re far more likely to be called lazy than a mother who stays at home, because in our society men are supposed to be the breadwinners.
Now, I am not saying that I believe we should only dress our babies in gender neutral clothes and give them gender neutral names, because I would have a hard time making that switch so immediately myself. I believe in taking small steps. The parents with the viral social media posts are making a difference in how the next generation views the world, and I think what they do is commendable. For the rest of us, who aren’t ready to take that giant leap yet, we have to settle on baby steps. I’ve started by removing unnecessary gendered language from my vocabulary. I refer to people as they or them if their gender is unknown. I am supportive to those in my life who are transgender. I call people by their preferred pronouns and their preferred names. I plan on correcting my child if she says something sexist or stereotyped. I plan to encourage socialization with children of the opposite gender.
We will never be able to fully dismantle gender stereotypes. Most gender development research available to us has shown that children develop gender stereotypes even as very young babies. They naturally create stereotypes to learn about the world. What we can control is whether or not our children hold negative stereotypes. We can control whether our child becomes flexible as they age, or if they become rigid in their stereotyped beliefs. We can ensure that we raise children who have open minds and full hearts.
If the mother in the nail polish post had simply allowed her step son to believe that nail polish was only for girls, how would that have affected his worldview? If she had not made an effort to correct him, he might hold that stereotype in his head from then on. He might say to his classmates who choose to wear nail polish that they’re behaving “like girls”, which places even more of a negative connotation to the word “girl”. He might grow up to be an adult that believes men and women are distinct and separate. He might grow up to be an adult that tells children they’re wrong for crossing gender boundaries. He might have kept the cycle going.
I want to break that cycle, and I want my child to grow up in a world that is a little less strictly gendered.