Helping kids to resist gender stereotypes

14th October 2019

Words by Jamey Fisher-Perkins // Photography by Sharon McCutcheon

There’s hardly any escaping it as a parent: gender stereotypes are everywhere. From the moment that someone declares ‘it’s a boy!’ or ‘it’s a girl!’, the assumptions start rolling in about what your child is going to be like. The pink and frilly gifts pile up – or maybe in your house they’re blue and covered in machines. And the more you pay attention, the more you start to see how wide the divide is between what’s meant for girls and meant for boys. Nearly everything is divided along gender lines: toys, TV shows, activities like football or dance. Kids today are subject to more gender stereotypes and gender-segregated activities than ever before, according to Elizabeth Sweet, a sociologist and expert in the field. Even toys without gender associations – things like Lego blocks – have now become separated into ‘girl Lego’ and ‘boy Lego’.

What’s the problem with all this gender segregation and stereotyping? Isn’t there, underneath it all, some truth?

There are a couple of problems with gender stereotypes and the way they’re used to segregate kids’ toys, clothes, and activities. Firstly, gender stereotypes aren’t based on an equal value weighting of femininity and masculinity. In our society, men and masculine things have more power and importance. It’s everywhere you look, once you start looking: everything from the gender pay gap to boys who play with dolls being called ‘sissies’, and everything in between. These stereotypes reinforce the idea that girls and women like things related to housekeeping, caring responsibilities, emotional skills, and their appearance, while boys and men like things that are active, full of monsters or wheels, and take analytical skills. Being surrounded by these messages tells kids over and over again how they are supposed to act, and what they are supposed to like. Nobody benefits from this – we’re all familiar with the way that girls lower their expectations and fail to take up STEM jobs at the rate men do, for example. Boys don’t benefit from being on the other end of the stereotypes, either – strict gender stereotypes cast boys as bold, dynamic, and more aggressive, which squeezes out space for feelings like sadness or fear and makes it harder for boys to form close emotional connections with others. The epidemic of men’s mental health problems is directly linked to traditional expressions of masculinity and the pressure men and boys feel to ‘man up’ rather than show vulnerability.

Secondly, the prevalence of gender stereotypes makes it easy to believe there’s some kind of hard-wiring that makes girls more predisposed to liking pink/frills/dolls/kitchens/woodland creatures and boys run towards camouflage/diggers/sharks/sports. It’s likely that you’ve read or heard something before that’s talked about how boys and girls learn differently, or how men and women are from ‘different planets’ emotionally.

This isn’t actually true. There’s no physical differences in children’s brains that make them like ‘girl’ things or ‘boy’ things, or be more capable in language or maths. Women don’t come genetically or biologically more able to be good listeners. As Cordelia Fine spells out in her brilliant, incredibly well-researched book Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, the differences that occur in boys’ and girls’ brains occur because our brains reshape themselves according to our environments. It’s called ‘plasticity’, and neuroscientists have been studying the effect of gender stereotypes on developing brains since the 1970s. There’s more evidence each year that by treating boys and girls as if their brains are different, they become different. Girls become better at language and interpersonal skills because we give them toys that reinforce these skills, and boys score higher on maths test because their toys and games give them more opportunities to develop those parts of their minds.

So what’s a parent to do? How can you resist some of the ways that gender stereotypes creep into your kids’ lives, and lean away from building neural pathways along gender lines? Here are five tips to help your family embrace a more gender-balanced approach.

1. Toys are for everyone

Ban ‘boys’ toys’ and ‘girls’ toys’ from your vocabulary. Toys are for any interested kid: dolls, trucks, play kitchens, trains, fancy dress outfits. Try to buy toys that are open-ended or that don’t come in ‘pink’ and ‘blue’ versions. The Let Toys Be Toys Campaign has useful ideas and advice for bringing more gender balance to your toy chests.

2. Make your bookshelf a gender-balanced Utopia

How many of the main characters of your kids’ books are boys? How many are girls? Do the girl main characters spend most of their time being princesses, doing ballet, or being fairies? We can’t change the world overnight, but we can exercise some healthy control over what our kids are reading. Seek out books that have female main characters who have a range of jobs and interests, as well as books that show boys being kind, sensitive, and gentle. There are loads of gems – everything from Jessica Love’s Julian is a Mermaid to the Little People, Big Ideas series (and plenty others as well!)

3. Choose clothes from all across the shop

There’s nothing (other than decades of patriarchy) that says boys need to wear blue, tough fabrics, or shirts covered in animals with big pointy teeth – or that girls can’t wear those things. Just because shops separate clothes into very gendered sections doesn’t mean you need to limit your child’s choices to one aisle. We’re much more used to seeing girls wearing boyish clothes, but there’s absolutely no reason that pastel colours, ruffles, or things with bows can’t be worn by boys. Your child doesn’t stop being a boy or a girl because they’re wearing a different outfit!

4. Point out sexism when you see it

Gender bias and stereotypes crop up everywhere: picture books, children’s TV shows and films, toys, clothes, comments from family. Treat sexism like an abandoned parcel on the train – if you see it, say something about it. We can’t raise our kids in a completely sheltered, sexism-free environment but we can help them learn to see unfair biases or assumptions, rather than letting them slide by silently. Kids have an instinctive love of fairness, so framing gender bias as unfairness based on one’s sex or gender is an easy way to communicate the concept to young children.

5. Model gender equality whenever you can

We are our children’s first and most important teachers. They look to us to understand the world and shape their own values. Find ways to model gender equality whenever you can, whether it’s dividing up the domestic chores in different ways, getting involved in political actions, or telling stories about times in your life that you acted in un-stereotypical ways. It all makes an impact!

Want to know more? I support parents to raise compassionate, feminist, socially-conscious children through one-to-one mentoring sessions, a range of online courses, and materials you can use in your own home. You can find more at jameyfisherperkins.com.

Growing Towards Justice, the curriculum for kindness and compassion, is a series of monthly topic guides packed with ideas for helping your kids to develop the skills they need to be mindful, empathetic, and egalitarian people. The code TOYDROP will give you 20% off a year’s subscription.

You can also find me on Instagram at @jamey_fisher_perkins, where I write about all things feminist parenting, including raising and home educating feminist sons.

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