My four-year-old daughter is dancing around the living room with six toy princesses, wearing a shiny, pink princess dress.
Earlier today, she scaled an eight-foot rock, along with a group of much bigger kids.
I don’t think children should avoid doing stereotypical things. But I do think it’s important that we don’t limit our children, based on their gender.
This has become a bugbear of mine since reading Cordelia Fine’s eye-opening book Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences. Fine reveals just how skewed our ideas about gender can be, and how many famous studies on the topic, which seem to highlight differences between male and female brains, have relied on cringe-worthily flawed methodology. These dodgy studies, Fine explains, once they’re popularised by the press, often have far-reaching effects, promoting “damaging, limiting, potentially self-fulfilling stereotypes.”
These days, I regularly find myself wincing at the incessant, silly stereotyping of children, and I shudder at the thought that my own children could be affected by them. As a media consultant, I work with some incredible female tech entrepreneurs, and I like to think that my daughter will have the same ‘can-do’ attitude they have.
As parents what can we do, though, to keep doors open for our kids, when cultural norms around gender might otherwise slam them shut?
Here are six gender stereotyping mistakes we all need to avoid, so we can widen our children’s horizons, no matter what gender they are.
The first rule of gender equality is: do not talk about gender! Or at least, not too much. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to make a big deal about gender equality, because the concept of gender wouldn’t be such a powerful, looming thing in the first place. And if only it wasn’t. As Fine points out, when the environment makes gender a consideration, ‘there is a ripple effect on the mind… it influences who you are, how you think and what you do.” The less we highlight supposed gender differences, the less power gender stereotyping will have over ourselves and our children.
Mistake 1: Making a really big deal out of gender
Gender stereotyping starts young; disturbingly, studies show even foetuses aren’t exempt. But, as parents, we can help to prevent this. “Inequalities begin in babyhood, and parents have the power to change them,” notes Dr Jane Murray, Senior Lecturer in Early Years Education at the University of Northampton and author of Building Knowledge in Early Childhood Education: Young Children Are Researchers. Jess Day, a campaigner at Let Toys Be Toys, a group which lobbies against gender stereotypes in marketing to children, agrees. “Research shows that adults treat even the smallest babies differently, according to whether they think it's a boy or a girl, and even comment differently about a baby's movements in the womb!” she says, adding: “It's hard to shake off those stereotypes.”
Mistake 2: Treating girl and boy babies differently
Hm. The princesses. Are they ok? Expert opinions differ here, though they agree that we should think carefully about the toys we provide for our children. Murray recommends choosing gender neutral toys when possible, as well as opting for gender neutral “clothes, nursery decoration, books, games and access to media.” For Day, though, not everything needs to be gender neutral. Instead, she recommends encouraging diverse interests. “Make sure there's a balanced range of playthings and books in the house,” she says, but adds: “Children should feel free to pick whatever toys they like. Enjoying trucks and cars doesn't rule out a fun tea party with teddy and dolly, later in the day.”
Mistake 3: Only having ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ toys
As parents, we cannot avoid being powerful role models for our children, and our own behaviour can lead to gender stereotyping from an early age, if we’re not very, very careful. Here, as a mum, I can boast leaving all the cooking to my husband, along with a regular interest in mowing the lawn. Helpful? Perhaps. Murray recommends that parents aim to provide children with role models which promote the idea that the genders are equal. She advises modelling gender equity, “for example by equal sharing of household tasks and paid work.”
Mistake 4: Being a stereotypical ‘mum’ or ‘dad’
So far, I have an aspiring teacher (the girl, age 4) and footballer (the boy, age 7) which I’m ok with. But I really want my kids to feel, as they grow up, that the world is their proverbial oyster. As Fine points out, it’s in all our interests that children pursue careers based on aptitude, rather than their gender. “Both women and computer science are the losers,” she notes as an example, “when a geeky stereotype serves as an unnecessary gatekeeper to the profession.” To counter the effects of aspirational stereotypes, Murray recommends “promoting gender neutral expectations and aspirations to boys and girls, concerning academic study and career choices.”
Mistake 5: Promoting ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ jobs
Hard as we might try, as parents we can’t control our children’s wider environment, including the marketing and social pressures they’ll encounter outside the home. "It's easy to say: ‘it's up to parents’,” says Day, “but marketing and social pressure have a lot of power and it's hard to break away from what’s seen as the norm.” What we can do is confront these pressures. Day recommends addressing the issue head on as children get older: “Have conversations about stereotypes and how silly and harmful they are,” she advises.
Mistake 6: Giving in to social pressure
Written by Corinne Card, who's the co-founder of Brighton-based media consultancy Full Story Media.