There has been a lot written on the internet and social media recently regarding gender bias and issues that pertain to raising well-rounded children. As parents sometimes we get so caught up in our daily lives that we become numb to the constant bombardment of subliminal and not so subliminal messages filtering through to our children. What’s worse, often we are the ones to perpetuate the gender stereotypes.
I have been blessed with two boys (both in their 20’s) and three girls (one 23 and the others 7 and 6). I wish that I could tell you that I have this all figured out and that I have all of the answers, but that would not be the truth. Twenty three years into this and my husband and I are still learning. However, there are some things that I can tell you that we have observed to be true for each gender of our children. What makes this even more compelling is the fact that we are a blended family therefore, not all of our children have the same two biological parents. Yet, the similarities are consistent. Big Poppa and I both agree on these three things: 1) all of our girls are better critical thinkers than our boys; 2) our boys tend to be just as sensitive, if not more so, as our girls; and 3) our boys have always been far less interested in issues dealing with the social hierarchy of friendship than our girls. They are much more capable of resolving and moving past issues with friends (read “a lot less social drama”) than our girls. We have no idea what to attribute any of this to, They’re just our observations. Maybe you have some to add? I say all of this to say that some things (not all, but some) really are inherent to gender and we, as parents, need to respect and enjoy the differences.
What’s ironic is that the things that my husband and I have observed to be inherent gender traits are directly opposite of what tends to be socially acceptable behavior by both sexes.
Girls are better critical thinkers than boys? Sure, as long as she’s thinking about what color to wear to the school game on Friday night!
Boys characterized as sensitive? Nonsense! Real men are not sensitive. Man Up!
Society has decided what are the social norms and in large part ignored natural personality or gender traits among children. And in doing so we are crippling them by forcing them to be something that they are not. These messages can be very subtle, for instance, I took my girls to the dentist the other day and at the end of the visit they were given little tooth-brush kits to take home. Each of them got to choose their own tooth-brush from either Disney Princess or characters from Cars 2. My girls chose princesses. Then after they got their floss and timers, they were given a bag to put it all in. The girls’ bags were pink, while the boys got blue bags. Pretty cliché don’t you think? Why couldn’t the children choose from generic primary colored tooth brushes and supplies then everyone receive white bags? Of course, given the opportunity my girls will choose the princess themed tooth brushes and my boys, at that age, would have chosen the Cars 2 themed tooth brushes. However, had they not been given the opportunity to make those choices, I seriously doubt that they would have cared. Those offerings are adult decisions and play directly into gender stereotypes. It may sound harmless enough, but combine that with all of the times that little girls and boys are offered gender themed stickers at the doctor’s office, receive the gender appropriate toy from McDonald’s or even get to choose from Disney Princess or Captain America themed hand soap, and it reinforces what’s expected from them in their gender roles. Girls are princesses and boys are big and strong. Girls are soft and like softer colors while boys are bold and aggressive, like their color choices. Girls need protecting and boys are their protectors.
Unfortunately, parents and other family members unknowingly add to this gender stereotyping in some of the most hurtful ways. Once while we were at swim lessons my then 5-year-old daughter and another kid in her class, a boy, were told to swim out to the ring that the instructor had placed in the water. The first one there was to dive down, pick it up and swim back. Ready…set…go! They swam, my daughter reached it first and swam back as instructed. Two things that you should know here: 1) My daughter is a fish; and 2) The little boy was hesitant. He had been somewhat fearful of the water for a while, but his dad was not very sympathetic. At the completion of that exercise I watched his father completely lose his mind. He called his son over to the side of the pool and told him to “get his s#$t together!” Not kidding. Remember, these kids were 5-years-old. During his talk, the father took the time to point out to the boy that there “was no way that he should have lost to that girl,” and with that he stormed out of the pool area to wait in the hall. My heart ached for that little boy. He didn’t cry, of course, because boys don’t cry, right? But, I sure wanted to.
The thing is, not all boys are athletic. In fact, some boys don’t even like sports, just like some girls don’t even like princesses. I have one of those. One of my sons never liked sports and never found them interesting. While he was growing up it became obvious that he was much more of a tech kid (a gamer) very early on. He liked science and loved to read. By the way, this didn’t make him less of a boy, just a boy with different interests. However, because I think exercise is a good thing and playing on a team can be beneficial in many ways, I forced him to play a sport for a few years. He tried softball and soccer and later, in middle school he was on the wrestling team, but nothing ever captured his attention because it really wasn’t his thing. Ironically, his father is a HUGE sports fan, a fact not lost on my son. Unfortunately, this led to a rather unpleasant Christmas many years ago when my son was about 8 or 9 – years – old. His dad gifted him with sports equipment for soccer, basketball and football that included a book. He left it in the living room floor for my son to find when he came home from school. Clearly my son didn’t ask for it nor did he want it. Angry and hurt, he stepped over it without speaking, and went to his room. The look on his face said it all, so I picked up the gifts and put them away. About a week later I asked him if he would at least like to read the book about the different sports to which he replied “no” and reiterated that he didn’t like nor was he interested in sports and everyone knew that, including his father. Then he said something that has stayed with me for about 15 years. He said, “He bought those things because he likes them, not me. He must not like me for me.” I assured him that it wasn’t the case, but agreed that it was disrespectful. No doubt that his dad had the best intentions and didn’t realize that his actions would insult his son. We never spoke about it again until about a week ago when I asked him if could I write about it.
As parents we do have to show our children respect by getting to know who they are. Sure, over the years as they grow, they will go in and out of phases, discover new likes and dislikes, but it’s our job to stay tuned in to them. We can give our opinions, give advice and surely exercise parental authority, but, and I want you to listen to me very closely…you do not have control over their personality! Some things are truly their own and deserve your encouragement, support, guidance and yes, respect. When possible introduce them to activities that are gender neutral. Girls do play sports and some of them don’t give a toot about fashion. By the same token, some boys want to go into the arts. Not being a jock doesn’t cancel your man card. We have to drop all of these crazy preconceived notions about who or what girls and boys must be and just let them be themselves.