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.