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Avoiding Gender Stereotypes

Even progressive parents may unintentionally reinforce narrowly defined gender stereotypes.

As a mom of both a girl and a boy, I hear comments all the time about how nice it must be to have one of each. “You must get the best of both worlds,” one friend will say. “A sweet little girl and a rowdy, silly boy.” While my children do have very different personalities, something rubs me the wrong way about suggesting that it’s simply left to their anatomy to decide their behavior. In fact, this idea of gender roles influencing behavior is a big topic of debate. While it’s easy to get sucked into the extremes of each side, experts in the field say that gender stereotypes are real and aren’t the product of the child, but rather their environment.

As it turns out, children begin modeling behavior based on a host of messages–some subtle, some not so subtle–that they’ve been receiving since birth. “Research shows that infants can tell the difference between males and females as early as their first year,” says Elaine Blakemore, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis. It’s not until kids are 3 or 4, however, that they really begin to work out for themselves what it means to be a boy or a girl. As they gradually test their theories through observation and imitation, many preschoolers begin adopting stereotypical behaviors. Blakemore explains that girls, for example, may spend most of their time in the dress-up or kitchen corner of their preschool classroom. Little boys may engage in activities that make them feel powerful, such as constructing block towers and then knocking them down with a toy truck.

Although many progressive parents, like me, are shocked to see their children conforming to such narrowly defined gender play roles, we may inadvertently perpetuate those stereotypes. “Adults aren’t aware of how much they reinforce stereotyping by complimenting boys and girls in stereotypical ways – commenting on how pretty a little girl looks in her dress, for example,” says Blakemore. “And even the most enlightened fathers often become uncomfortable when they see their sons playing with dolls or exhibiting other traditional feminine behavior.”

According to some experts, it’s not unusual for preschool girls to go through a pink and frilly phase and for preschool boys to spend their days imitating superheroes. Nevertheless, it’s important for parents to help guide their preschoolers’ thinking to make sure that they don’t end up with lasting gender ideas based on stereotypes. Here are a few suggestions.

Encourage mixed-gender playdates

Boys and girls who play together tend to engage in more varied activities. When they’re playing with children of the opposite gender, boys may be more likely to participate in creative make-believe games or to practice their fine motor skills with art projects. Girls who regularly play with boys may spend more time outdoors, building their bodies through vigorous exercise.

Reinforce behaviors that shatter stereotypes

Rather than rule out certain stereotypical behaviors, make a point of reinforcing those that challenge the stereotype. For example, you might tell your daughter, “Wearing pants today was a good idea – it’ll be so much easier to climb the monkey bars.” A father may tell a son in tears, “Sometimes I feel like crying too.”

Question all generalizations

Encourage your child to deal with other kids as individuals in specific situations rather than as representatives of their gender.

Tune in to your own biases

As parents, we should also review our behavior to make sure we’re not unknowingly clinging to outdated stereotypes. Boys and girls both need to be shown that there are alternatives to the classic stereotypes.

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