I know this post may upset or offend some people, so I will state from the start that it is not my intention. My goal is to break gender discrepancies that society adheres to and to discuss unintentional things we do to drive those stereotypes home to our children.
First, allow me to give you a little background on myself and this subject. I spent a year of grad school researching and writing a thesis paper on the development of the gender schema in children. It’s long and wordy and highly researched and runs about 60 pages, so I won’t subject you to all that, the point is I know this subject intimately. It is near and dear to me.
Did you know that before the 1940’s it was often suggested by clothing retailers and newsprint that boys wear pink and girls were blue? These two colors showed up well in print ads. We could be having a totally different conversation today if people stuck with that. Before that in the 1920s most babies wore neutral colors, girls AND boys often wore dresses up until about 7 and had long hair (gasp). Only 80 years ago is when all this nonsense about a girl color and a boy color really took off, and the American society latched on to it and went running. I always say to my students, and my two boys, “Colors are for everyone.” Then I go on to blow their minds and say pink is actually NOT one of my favorite colors (unless it is neon pink, I mean I am a product of the ’80s). If you want to read more about the evolution of clothing colors, please click on the link posted at the bottom.
Now let us delve into pants and dresses. Most of us do not bat an eye when we see a woman wearing pants. Yet again, only 100 years ago, it was taboo. Women who wore trousers were scandalous or considered perverted. They were also required to wear corsets and a lot of other bullshit gear, but I won’t rant on that, at least not today. Currently, I am wearing leggings, an oversize t-shirt, and using an exercise ball as a chair. Not precisely super feminine, but again what defines feminine has changed and much for the better. Besides, my Disney Belle leggings are really cozy.
However, a boy in a dress that is still a BIG no-no to most people in western culture. Allow me to state I am not suggesting you run out and buy dresses for your son; unless he wants to wear them, and then I totally support you being the awesome parent that encourages him to be who he is. Here’s the thing, most preschool boys (and having been a preschool teacher well over a decade I can tell you they will) put on a dress while playing at some point. I’ve had little boys who would walk into the classroom, and the first thing they would do is head to the dress-up bin and put on their favorite dress for the day. Children like to mimic what they see. Maybe mom wears a lot of dresses, when teaching, I can often be seen wearing a long maxi dress. Or perhaps they just think it’s fun and pretty like the girls do. I am raising two boys during the rise of Frozen, dresses happen. Dolls happen too by the way; embrace it, studies show that boys that play with dolls grow up to be more attentive fathers. No proof or research points to a boy being gay or transgender because he wore a dress or played with dolls when young. If your child is LGBT, you can’t change that, so love the shit out of them and support them through life; even with loving parents, it is still a hard path. Would you tell your daughter to stop wearing pants and pretending to be an engineer? Nope, probably not. Extend the same to our boys.
Our culture tells boys to “Man up” “Don’t be so sensitive” “Don’t cry” or my personal favorite “Stop acting like a girl,” implicitly implying to our boys and girls, that girls are bad and weak. Our language has so much power, even if we do not mean to be derogatory, we can do a lot of damage with words. The old “Sticks and Stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is frankly, bullshit. Take it from someone who was in an emotionally abusive relationship at one point in college, words can destroy you. When boys are to hold in their emotions because it is weak to do otherwise, we are sending them a message that their feelings don’t matter and that real men are tough and don’t feel things. Some of the manliest men I know I have seen cry. We are doing our boys a disservice by shutting down their emotions. Emotions are human, not gender-specific. Hey, there’s a new phrase! “Feelings don’t have gender.”
For our girls, we need to stop telling them they are pretty all the time or how cute their outfit is. Sure, a lot girls like to hear that, but when you hear to it too often, especially when you are young, you start to believe your looks define you. Studies have shown that the majority of greetings young girls receive by their teachers as they enter the classroom are related to their looks. At the same time, boys, are much more likely to be greeted along the lines of “Hey, how are you today?” The problem is we think we are just giving a compliment. Compliments are lovely and necessary exchanges; they make us feel good to both give and receive, so give them. However, I challenge you next time you see your niece, stepdaughter, neighbor, or student pay attention to what you say. Is the first thing out of your mouth about their appearance? One of the most unintentionally damaging things I ever heard was done by a father to his daughter. A dad came in to pick up his 3-year-old daughter from my classroom. She pulled out a picture she had drawn and said, “I made a picture of Mommy!” You could see how proud she was. He looked at the picture, and incredulously said, “That’s Mommy?” and laughed, he continued to say, “That must be Mommy without her makeup on.” The message that was sent to this young girl was: 1) Your picture is so bad I can’t even tell what it is 2) Because it’s so bad and you say it’s Mommy that means women are only attractive with makeup on. I know for a fact he did not intend to send that message, but he did. Words have power.
We do not need to force children into cross-gender roles or out of gender-typical roles. We simply need to let them be who they are. Gender Roles Need Not Apply Here is the message we want to send. You are a boy who loves to cook and garden, awesome those are great skills to have. You are a girl who wants to become an astronaut, you will be great at the because astronauts must work hard. You are a boy who wants to be a dancer, that’s amazing you have to be really strong to become a dancer. You are a girl who wants to run her own business, that means you must be really good at math! See where I am going?
Studies show that gender roles are becoming more neutral in the household. Our world is changing, and that’s good! I know in my house it is pretty much 50/50. He cooks, he cleans, and he does his own laundry. I enjoy doing the yard work and can often be found with a tool in my hand attempting some minor household project. Credit is due however, for the brand-new toilet he installed in our downstairs bathroom, way beyond my pay-grade. The point is there is no right or wrong way to be a male or female. My guy can be one of the manliest guys, by standard definition, you have ever met. I mean, he wore a Punisher shirt to work today, and yet I met him while performing in a musical theater production together (he’s really talented too!).
It is hard to navigate the waters of parenting. We have friends, co-workers, relatives (and bloggers) telling us how to do everything. Find your own path. Here is my final anecdote. When my older son was in the EXCEEDINGLY early stages of potty training (yes, the kids from that previous post), he wanted Disney Princess underwear. I can tell you that 6 years ago, they did not make that for boys, I still do not think they do. Instead, I bought iron-on decals from Etsy, a pack of white briefs, and I made them. He was delighted (not that it helped!) The moral is, listen to your kid, love what they love, support them, and be their number one fan. I mean, I am a nerdy, book-loving, Harry Potter and musical theater geek that can often be heard to say “Yay! Sportsball!” and I let my son play baseball. But guess what, he loves Broadway too.
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/when-did-girls-start-wearing-pink-1370097/ ~ When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink.
The portrait at the top of the post is titled “Portrait of a Baby Boy” and can be found at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.