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Gender stereotyping starts early

I am so sick of this trend in articles around children which goes “boys are all energetic and can’t sit still while girls are little angels who draw pictures and speak nicely.” The Sydney Morning Herald seems particularly prone to it with another prime example yesterday. Yes, small boys are aliens and other total twaddle. Actually, this is just plain and simple gender stereotyping, and stereotyping which reinforces the social construction of gender identity. If we are constantly expecting boys to behave in certain ways, that is the behaviour we see, notice and comment upon and it is the behaviour we expect and encourage in our boys.

Guess what, I have three boys. And yes, they can be boisterous, and shoot people and run around and jump on top of people. But they can also spend ages quietly and carefully constructing lego or railway tracks or Little People towns; they sit and draw for ages on end and do craft completely self inspired; they assist with cooking and carefully cut vegetables or mix batter. Boys are just a likely to have quiet time as girls. And guess what, I know plenty of girls who run and jump and get involved in bashing things and play in the dirt. And I know boys (unfortunately, not mine) who can’t abide getting their hands or clothes dirty.

This rush to stereotype, to place children within categories inevitably acts to reproduce the gender roles that are all around the children. My boys loved pink until they hit 5, when suddenly they learnt from the slightly older kids that pink “was a girly colour.” My oldest boy had a fairy themed party at 4 and wore pink fairy pyjamas and often got around at childcare in a long pink dress over his other clothes. While you don’t want your kids to be social misfits or socially excluded, it is sad how quickly school and the schoolyard forces them to conformity. It was a very sad day recently when the middle child came home recently and told us that “fairies are girl things.” All three boys have dolls, and have at one stage or another mothered them as much as any girl does (including breast feeding them when I was feeding younger siblings).

While some people rush to say nature, the influence of socially constructed expectations is everywhere for children. From the television they watch to the presents people give them, the expectations are made clear. without removing your child entirely from the social reality around them, there is no way to escape it. Even those of us who actively think about these things can’t help but in tiny ways reinforce the way society is to our children. We can fight some of the larger more obvious things (actually fairies are for everyone, and many famous fairies are male – think Oberon) we are part of this society, at least partially trapped in its ideological constructions. breaking down those understandings and assumptions is a long term project, not something that can be immediately overcome with pink pyjamas and dolls for presents.

And I do understand my boys – well as much as any grown up can understand a child. They certainly are not aliens to me.

5 responses to “Gender stereotyping starts early

  1. I love this post. I remember having this conversation with the extended family when I was in high school. My aunt was saying gender-stereotypes were inherent because her son had watched her apply lipstick almost every day of his life and never once asked for some of his own. As a 15 year old I didn’t argue “but did he ever see his dad applying lipstick?” but I thought it. It’s amazing (and sad) how quickly and quietly those lessons are learned.

    • godardsletterboxes ⋅

      And the funny thing is, my boys, up to age of 5, all want to use my cosmetics! They have brushed their faces with my poweder brush and put on my moisturiser (digging the finger in, alas) and worn eye shadow and demanded nail polish. Then again, they have seen their father put on nail polish too…. But my 7 year old has no interest any more – he knows which gender make up is for now.

  2. I find this a pretty interesting topic with a 4yo boy and 1yo girl. Our boy also used to say pink was his favourite colour and loved to dress up as a fairy and put on a tutu. I was saddened when I found out the husband of our day-carer had been “enlightening” our boy on what was appropriate to boys directly at times and indirectly through his own son. I agree that he strongly picks up on my modelling (which is good and bad).

    Our girl so far wants to be outside all the time, loves playing with balls and cars and is much more physical than our boy was. I expect she will get the message soon enough that she should be inside playing with her dollys. 😦

    • godardsletterboxes ⋅

      We had full on pink fairies dresses as well – but the 7 year old would not be caught dead in one of those nowadays. He still does have a couple of fairy statues about his room though.

      This is the thing – even when parents work hard not reinforcing gender stereotypes, we are hardly the only people in our children’s lives, and there are plenty of people who overtly and inadvertently reinforce these ideas. And then there is tv….

  3. Louise ⋅

    My fiance used to play with barbies and other dolls until he was 10 and then moved onto guitars which are his life now…According to him it was a huge sign he was bisexual which annoys me in a way that males can’t get in touch with their feminine side without being dubbed as gay or females can’t get in touch with their masculine side without being dubbed as lesbians. I, myself, was and still am a tomboy in all meaning of the word, I never played with a doll and the only pink I wore were knickers lol

    However, when it comes to my children, they can make their own choices and will be taught to trust their own opinions before others can judge them.

    My dad absolutely loves the color pink and collects dolls which I think is awesome, however, I have lost my youngest sister to dolls, make up and fashion.

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