Pink is For Girls - How Gender Stereotypes Hold Our Children Back
It's A Girl!
From the moment we're born (or seen on ultrasound), our gender is center stage. It's the first thing people ask of a new pregnancy - Do you know the sex? Obviously, there are biological underpinnings for this question. Gender is seriously important when you're talking about reproduction. You've got to have sperm and egg to propagate our species, and those come from male and female, respectively. Only, when a baby is first born, is it really that important? There aren't any secondary sex characteristics, so we dress them in pink and blue and get irritated if a stranger calls our baby boy a girl or vice versa. But really, babies are babies. Whether they come equipped with penises or vaginas, we feed them, change their diapers, rock them to sleep and love them. Practically speaking, a newborn's sex is hardly an issue, except for some minor differences in diapering techniques between boys and girls.
Young children do not initially see certain colors for one sex or the other. They don't automatically assume even, that only women can be mommies and men can be daddies. They aren't genetically wired to see a big difference in the two sexes at all. Eventually though, they start to notice things. They notice mom wears skirts, and dad only wears pants. They observe that girls wear their hair in pigtails, while boys typically don't. Some kids notice more social gender differences than others, depending on how stereotypically gender is addressed in their homes and communities. Example: both my sons love to have their nails painted. They never heard anyone say nail polish was a "girl thing." Then, my oldest started kindergarten and wore pink glittery nail polish to school one day. Many of the kids vehemently told him he couldn't wear nail polish, because it's for girls. He was upset and didn't understand why they even cared what was on his nails.
Humans are wired to categorize things, and young children often naturally over-generalize their categorizations, based on their limited experiences. For example, a friend of mine as a child had two Aunt Nancy's. She assumed all aunts were named Nancy because of this. However, we adults often encourage over-generalizations of gender stereotypes by steering our daughters towards the play kitchen and denying our sons that pink bike. I want to explore how and why we, as adults, encourage gender stereotyping and what that means for our children in the long run.
Insidious Gender Stereotyping
The world has come a long way from times when women didn't have the right to vote. There was a time when women were considered property of their fathers and then of their husbands and could not by law own any property of their own. In those times, men were expected to provide for and protect their families, make most of the decisions impacting their families, and never show any weakness. To most of us now, this state of affairs would be appalling. Society has even made significant strides in recent decades. Now more so than in my childhood, there are women police officers, fire fighters, and construction workers depicted in media. Today I know a handful of men who stay home with their children, whereas when I was a kid, they were nonexistent. So we've arrived, right?
While we have come a long way, there is still room to grow. Many people don't even recognize their own gender biases, until they feel uncomfortable when their toddler son puts on high heels from the dress-up box at school or their daughter eschews dolls in favor of playing army. And while we may tell our children they can be anything they want to be, most of us aren't even considering our daughters may want to be football players or our sons may take to fashion design. I have to confess, as open-minded as I've always considered myself, I found myself slightly uncomfortable when my son wanted to wear his nail polish out in public. Mostly, I was worried about emotional damage should people make fun of him. Then I asked myself the most important question a parent can ask when making decisions about children: What message do I want to send my child about this? Did I want to tell him we do things to fit into the norm just so people won't bother us? Or do I want to tell him to think for himself, make his own decisions, and have the confidence to go against the grain if that's what he really wants? Then, despite my own discomfort the choice became obvious to not only let him wear nail polish to school, but to celebrate it.
Many of the expressions we use everyday encourage over-generalizations about gender characteristics. Statements like, "he's all boy," in response to a particularly active child or, "you know our house is full of girls, so… drama!" These things are meant innocently, but it is folly to assume the reason your child is very active is because he is a boy. Having had the advantage of teaching over 200 young children during my years as an educator, I can tell you, while there may be slightly more active boys than active girls, the girls can hold their own in this department. It does both genders a disservice to assume all boys are always going to want to go out and wrestle in the dirt or all girls are always going to want to go inside and play house. The idea that only girls are emotionally dramatic is refuted every day in my own house, which contains two, highly-emotional boys who could win academy awards for some of their performances.
Boys in Pink
Resources for Gender-Nonconformity in Children
- My Princess Boy
- 10,000 Dresses
Books for Parents:
- Accepting Dad
- Raising My Rainbow: Adventures in Raising a Slightly Effeminate, Possibly Gay, Totally Fabulous Son
Why Do We Overgeneralize?
Why do we have the need to ascribe certain characteristics to females and others to males? It's a complex answer with genetic underpinnings. Human beings are genetically inclined to categorize things. It helps keep information organized in our brains, and allows us to use that information to know how to react in certain situations or to particular people. Wouldn't it be simple if you could tell by looking at someone what kind of person they were? What if you knew for a fact all people with green eyes were good with finances? Then, you would instantly know what kind of conversations you could have with them, what they would understand and maybe what kind of advice to ask of them. You probably agree, though, you can't tell by looking at someone whether or not they know anything about money. Isn't it just as absurd to assume by looking that a man doesn't know how to diaper a baby (as the hospital staff assumed of my husband when our son was a newborn) or that a woman is a bad driver (as someone once assumed of me after observing the large dent in the back of my minivan?) Still, though our brains strive to put people in categories with definitive characteristics, because it's easier than starting with a blank slate, where you can't make any assumptions about a person's personality, what you can talk to them about, or whether or not you might like them.
When parents get uncomfortable about their child's play or wardrobe choices because they don't match up with social gender stereotypes, many times it's because the parent fears it means their child is gay or that if their boys play with pink plastic kitchen tools, it will actually make them gay. The best way to refute this is a very brief conversation I had with my husband after the first time I painted our eldest's toenails. I asked, "Does it bother you that I painted his toenails?" My husband shrugged and said, "No. It's not like it's going to make him gay. He's either gay or not, and all my getting upset about nail polish will do is give him a complex."
Quote from Accepting Dad's Blog
Our gender, our preference, these are big parts of us, but they are really just a smallish part of the totality of being human, or they could be, if we all got over ourselves and let each other simply be; I’m sure of this now. If you love your child as a straight and cis-gendered, you’ll love them as gay and trans, or any possible combination thereof, if you only let yourself. Will there be unpleasant moments? Confusion? Pangs of strange emotion? You betcha. Will you get through it and find a new normal?
You will. I promise you from the bottom of my heart. You will.
What Can This Mean For Our Children?
Well, for starters, our children are growing up in an era when males and females have more room socially to jump outside their traditional gender boxes than ever before. That's something to celebrate, but, as I mentioned earlier, there is still progress to be made. If we as parents can catch ourselves when we get uncomfortable with makeup on a boy or a hockey uniform on a girl, even if it's our boy or girl, our children really will feel they can try anything their hearts desire, without the constraints of the judgement of society.
In addition, if we can work on detaching so much meaning to gender, it will make room for many more possibilities. Think about it. You've probably done the double take on someone before - given them a second look because you weren't sure whether they were a boy or a girl. Maybe it was a person six feet tall, with long blond hair, wearing a skirt and makeup, but you thought you saw stubble and an adam's apple. How many glances did you steal? How much energy did you spend considering the sex of this person you didn't know? I know I've done it, but as a wise sage once told me, "It doesn't matter what gender someone is, unless you want to sleep with them." Now I've gotten to a place where, when I see someone of ambiguous gender, I make the conscious choice not to spend time trying to figure out their biological sex. Unless you're in a club on the prowl for someone to take home, it really doesn't matter. If we as a society could get to that place where a person's gender takes a back seat to their individual personality, skills, and feelings, a whole world of possibility will be open for our children in business, in love, and in life.