Friday, March 22, 2013

Stop Making Gender Such a BIG Deal

I am sick to death of the reinforcement of gender stereotypes being parental shorthand for discussing children's behavior.  I will not abide it anymore.  I refuse, and I have evidence on my side that they are mostly BS.

Sometimes my Facebook feed makes me want to barf when it is filled with ridiculously gendered parent discussions.  Examples:
This one's all boy.
Boys are so dirty.
Boys are so rambunctious.
Isn't she a pretty princess?
Sugar and spice and rainbow pooping unicorns...
 blah blah blah... You are setting your kids up for failure already.  

I see this gendered non-sense as a very slippery slope toward the fulfilling of expectations and ideals.  What do I mean?  I mean, when you reinforce gender roles in your child, you are already setting them up to believe that the gendered standard is the ideal.  Who sets the gendered standard?  Good question!  A collective of whuckery: mostly made up by media and the people who hold cultural commodities in check.  HOLY GUACAMOLE, does she mean to say that Justin Bieber, Paris Hilton, etc etc are the ones holding up the gendered ideals?  YES.  And while the tides have been turning for quite some time as to the ideal being more diverse, there is still the unattainable ideal out there.

Kids are programmed to figure out this ideal and try to meet it.  Think about it.  When your kid is born, they aren't yet molded into a cultural model of behavior.  We as parents mold them into cultural beings from the very beginning.  We decorate a girls room with pretty pink things and a boys room with trucks and dragons. We give them toys to play with and watch them learn ways of being.  We tell them all about the shoulds, but more than that, we SHOW them.  We show them which differences are important and which aren't, and gender seems to always end up in the important category.

I try so hard not to do this.  Whenever my girls point out any difference between another person and themselves I am quick to point out 1-20 similarities.  Example:
Annika: That guy has black skin.
Me: Yes he does.  Just like our friend Stephanie.
Annika: Oh, right.
Me: He also has brown eyes just like you.
Annika: Yeah and can make silly faces.
Me: Exactly.

I'm not trying to confound gender and race here.  I'm merely implying that both are equally ridiculous made up culturally patterned concepts.  I'm also not trying to suggest that I'm not gendering my children at all, rather that as a parent I am consciously aware of the ways in which their views on gender are influenced by me and all of the people around us.  While I have been known to go a little too far, like making Annika repeat that "gender is a cultural construct," I feel that too many parents don't consider this in their computation of how they are molding their children.    

Yes, the research does show that some gender differences are inherent, but not as many as you might think.  I found this fairly good summary of the cross-cultural research findings here on this website in case you are interested.  The biggest conclusion I have come to after analyzing the data is that gender is mostly a made up concept that varies by culture.  Some of the research is a bit startling to put it mildly, but mostly I find myself nodding along and wondering why it is such a groundbreaking declaration that most of our differences are made up by our culture.  Maybe I've just been in graduate school for too long though.

Here are my two munchkins:


When Annika cut her hair short, gender became a big discussion around our house.  By flipping around the discussion to people we know, it became easier to set the wheels turning in her head rather than beat her over the head with a lecture.
Annika: Girls have long hair mama.
Me: Does Ruth have long hair?
Annika: No.
Me: Is she a girl?
Annika: Yes. Hmmm...
This is how I handle this parenting dilemma.

What about you:
Do you think about gender and the way you reinforce stereotypes with your own children?  What about the other people in your kids' lives, what kind of gender picture are they putting into your kids' minds?  Do you think that gender differences are important?  Do you talk about them with your kids?  Are you painting a dichotomous gender picture of the world for your kids?  If so, why? 

4 comments:

  1. I agree! When my daughter says things like "Short hair is for boys", I'll point out all the women and girls we know with short hair. And don't get me started on the colour pink!

    Although my eldest is at an age now where she requests it, she's starting to realise it's ok to like other colours too (with some 'prodding' from me). I absolutely refuse to buy pink clothing unless I have the girls with me and they specifically request a pink item. Generally, though, anything pink they wear was a gift. That's my main attempt because I feel so strongly about the way society forces pink down the throat of anyone with a vagina ;)

    Luckily, my husband was raised by an über feminist mother, so he is awesome too at encouraging our daughters to pursue interests that tradionalists would frown upon as being too 'boyish'. Pfft to that, I say.

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    1. My husband is also ueber-supportive in helping us encourage them to have a broader conceptualization of gender roles.

      Pfft is exactly right. Tradition is all fine and good, but questioning it is important, especially when it is oppressive.

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  2. Thanks for this post. Gender leads to some intereting parenting discussions in our house, too. Today S1 tried to tell S2 he couldn't pick the girl character in Chutes & Ladders today. I told S1 it's a game and S2 can pick anything he wants. In the other game I'm a worm or a hippo. Also S1's favorite colors are pink and purple. I actually pretty okay with letting culture have a say in how we play out gender, but I just try to be conscious of where the influence is coming from. My primary goal is to make sure the kids are able to adjust to multiple cultures and hopefully don't question their own worthiness or identity (or someone else's!) based on how well they conform to someone else's cultural expectation. We're all human beings, deserving of respect and dignity.

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    Replies
    1. I think that is such a great approach, and I wholeheartedly agree. Conforming to gender roles isn't really the issue; the bigger problem is thinking that something is wrong with NOT conforming to them either for yourself or others. Isn't it so much fun navigating these larger issues in tiny children? :-P

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