“No mamma, I can’t become a prime minister because I am a girl”,my five year old niece was telling her mom, which was quite disheartening, we were chatting in the car stuck in Bangalore traffic,about what she would like to become. It is at this age that children become really aware of their gender identity. They already know a lot about social expectations for girls and boys, and how girls and boys “need” to behave.
Have you ever caught yourself saying, “boys will be boys”? Maybe it’s after your seven year old son and his buddies run through the house in muddy boots, leaving a trail of dirt. Or maybe you watched two little guys wrestle in mud during a hockey game, and didn’t think much of it. Boys are just programmed that way, right? “What can you do?” we sigh, with a wry smile.
If this sounds like something you’ve said before, then you’re making assumptions based on gender norms — probably without even thinking about it. Even if we don’t mean to pass along our societal assumptions, these ideas about “typical boys” and “typical girls” are rubbing off on our kids, too.
Some boys like domestic play or love color “pink”; some girls prefer boy clothes and playing with trucks. I can still remember the first time I was introduced to the concept of gender expectations. I was in the second grade and I proudly walked to school in my brand new neon green Spiderman sneakers. But, later that day, my heart sank when a little boy in my class pointed at my shoes and announced loudly: “Hey! I have those shoes too. Why are you wearing BOYS shoes?” I heard laughter behind me. I swear I can still feel my ears burning from embarrassment. Being a fairly outspoken child myself, I asked him what it was about my shoes that made them a “boys only” accessory. I can still recall how he simply shrugged and said, “Because girls don’t like Spiderman.”
My mind was blown. At the tender age of seven, I was jarringly introduced to the sad realization that some people perceived me differently now because I liked something commonly associated with boys. My parents hadn’t raised me to think that way. If they knew I liked something, they never denied me that interest. They never thought it was weird that their daughter loved super heroes. It wasn’t until I was out in the real world i.e. that fateful day at school that I realized not everyone played with a variety of toys like I did.
As a child, I couldn’t wrap my head around what was so wrong with liking both Spiderman and Barbies. I still don’t get it, even as an adult.
It’s that sometimes we can still get caught up in the mentality that boys and girls don’t share similar interests. Yes, girls may be more inclined to dress like princesses and boys may be more eager to play with a Hot Wheels car, but assuming that all kids fall under these gender divisions is a mistake. It’s an error we still make as adults- we make assumptions based on gender norms, often without even realizing it. Some people may brush it off as not a big deal, but it is. I wish the seven year old me hadn’t been made aware of gender norms because I became a little more self-conscious about expressing my interests while at school. Our kids pick up on these attitudes and carry these assumptions through into adulthood. And it will just continue as a vicious cycle.
We should just be more cognizant of the fact that our seemingly harmless throwaway comments like “Boys don’t cry” or “Girls need to look pretty”, about gender norms actually do have an impact on our little ones.
The best we can try to do is raise our kids to be imaginative in as gender-neutral a household as we can, instead of depriving them of interests that may provide them with a sense of “creative individuality” down the road.
Parents can fight back against toxic stereotypes and help girls and boys discover all their talents so that they can follow their dreams, wherever they may lead !