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Gender Stereotyping is Learned.

Why boys should be allowed to play with dolls and why Frozen and Elsa are for everyone.

I receive a lot of questions from parents concerned that their little boys enjoy playing with B2arbies or dressing up in princess dresses. Interestingly, I never receive messages from parents concerned that their little girls like playing with trucks or dressing up as Fire Fighters...

I recently received this question and I wanted to share some thoughts. It is time we talked about gender stereotypes.

"My son loves the Music from Frozen and will happily dance around our living room which we love, but he wants to do it alone and gets embarrassed if we are there. I'm wondering where this shame comes from at such an early age (3)"

Let me start by telling you an anecdote.

I was dropping my son off to school and a little girl called out to a boy ahead,

“Why are you wearing an Elsa backpack?” There was a confused and judgmental tone to her voice because... Elsa is only for girls…right? The boy’s mother confidently intervened and replied,

“Because he loves Elsa!” Simple as that. The first little girl paused for a second and then replied,

“I love Elsa, too!” with genuine excitement in her voice that this was something the two children had in common.

Here’s the thing. Gender stereotypes are learned.

Verywell family define gender stereotypes as

“Preconceived, usually generalized views about how members of a certain gender do or should behave, or which traits they do or should have. They are meant to reinforce gender norms, typically in a binary way (masculine vs. feminine).”

Some gender stereotypes include:

  • Believing that all boys are the same and all girls are the same (e.g. all boys like superheroes).

  • Thinking that all boys should be a particular way and all girls should be a particular way. (e.g. boys shouldn’t like playing with dolls).

  • Using stereotypes to make inferences about people (e.g. he’s a boy so he would probably rather play superheroes than play with dolls).

Research shows that children’s attitudes to gender are formed by age 7. Gender stereotypes are learned in childhood through observing how adults choose clothing for their children, what toys and play opportunities are offered to children, and which activities boys or girls are encouraged to enjoy. Unfortunately, within Western society, boys can receive harsh criticism for enjoying clothing, toys or activities that are counterstereotypical; boys who enjoy dresses, dolls, or musical theatre may face criticism even by those who are close to them.

My son just turned 5 and recently started Primary 1. Since being educated outside the family home my son has started talking about gender stereotypes for the first time. He will say things like “Boys can’t wear pink” (despite pink being his own favourite colour to wear). When we dig into this as a family, he will comment that generally the boys in school wear dark colours (navy, grey, brown, black), whereas the girls have backpacks that are pink and sparkly (his own backpack is proudly adorned with pink unicorns!). Why is he suddenly grouping children by sex? Well, its common for teaching staff within schools to unintentionally separate boys and girls through language and physical separation. So, for the first time in his life my son is categorizing by gender and making “rules” to help him make sense of the in-group that he finds himself in (boys) vs the outgroup from which he is separate (the girls). From an early age, children use stereotypes to categorise and make sense of the world. All of us want to feel a sense of belonging and he now finds himself wanting to fit in with his ascribed gender.

What is interesting is that differences between the “male” and “female” brain have often been overstated in the literature. Gender stereotypes are a largely social construct. We need to challenge these gender stereotypes. How that looks in our family is talking about how “Anyone can wear anything that they like!” We point out exceptions to social convention and celebrate Harry Styles on the cover of Vogue wearing a dress, or the man in the supermarket with his hair in a top-knot. We push back against the discourse that Frozen is for girls…Frozen is for anyone who enjoys Frozen. We #lettoysbetoys and we provide opportunities for our children to access and enjoy toys and activities that are counterstereotypical.

Here are some more ideas to try:

  • When purchasing toys, books or clothing for your child, get curious about stereotypes you may be reinforcing. Curate a range of toys for your home including unisex and those marketed to different genders.

  • Consider whether certain chores in your family reinforce gender roles. Who cooks the meals? Who takes primary responsibility of the children? Who does the majority of the cleaning? Who takes out the garbage, does the DIY, or mows the lawn?

  • Talk to your child. Listen to the gender stereotypes they are bringing to you and challenge them together. “You are saying only girls wear pink, but Daddy wore a pink T-shirt yesterday. I think you are noticing, in school, that a lot of children wear pink, and many of those kids are girls. But pink is for anyone who likes pink.”

  • Share age-appropriate books about gender equality and gender diversity with your child, and allow and encourage them to speak freely about gender issues.

  • Diversify your child’s understanding of gender by finding books, TV shows, and movies that show kids the opposite of traditional gender norms.

  • Notice your use of language. Do you always refer to “Policemen” rather than Police Officer? Do you say Fireman, rather than Firefighter? School Dinner Lady, rather than cook? Do you assume that a secretary is a woman or that an engineer is a man?

We all have gender biases, so I have a few questions that I would like to invite you to reflect on.

  1. Is there an assumption in your mind somewhere that Frozen is a movie for girls, or that enjoying dancing to the music from Frozen is somehow something only girls should enjoy?

  2. If these assumptions are held in your family, what is it about this movie that causes you to think about it this way?

  3. Have you perhaps been unconsciously reinforcing stereotypes about gender to your child?

  4. What is it about this behaviour that makes you feel as though your son is embarrassed or ashamed?

Because if your son isn’t hearing messaging that dancing to Frozen is for girls then perhaps there is no shame around this activity. If adults aren’t laughing or making fun of his enjoyment, then maybe he isn’t embarrassed at all. Or maybe, he would experience the same embarrassment dancing around the living room to songs about dinosaurs and actually this isn’t about Frozen at all…

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