Parenting to Stereotype

Parenting to Stereotype: Yesterday I was chatting with a mom I recently met while we watched our kids on the playground. A little boy was going down the slide with one leg over the edge, at which point she asked him to be careful. Then she turned to me and said, “Boys! They are so wild!”  As if on cue Amelia and one of her buddies came running into our peripheral vision and tackled each other to the ground. I replied, “I think you mean, ‘Kids!’, because my daughter would go down the slide the same way and so would the other little girl she is wrestling with right now.”

The mom went on to tell me how different her boy and girl are from each other, that her daughter is so well behaved and her son is such a little dare devil. I asked if maybe it had more to do with individual personality vs gender, but she insisted it was gender. While she was speaking she literally had to stop herself to gasp as another little girl jumped from the platform of the play structure to an outlying bar so that she could dangle there ten feet above the ground. I looked around for my son and found him sitting underneath a different slide, quietly talking with another little boy.

I informed her that my experience as a parent has been the opposite as it is my girl who is the dare devil and my son is the *slightly* better behaved of the two. She again insisted she saw a huge difference in her boy and girl and that it was due to their gender. I just smiled and acquiesced with “Every kid is so different from the next, but you know your children and their personalities best.”   We said our goodbyes as it was time for us to go, and as her daughter walked over I noticed she was dressed head to toe in pink and her mother held out a princess backpack for her to wear for the walk home.

Maybe it is her daughter’s personality, and there is nothing inherently wrong with liking pink or princesses. But part of me wondered, is that her daughter being herself or her daughter meeting her parent(s) expectations for what it means to be a girl? Did her daughter have a choice other than pink or princess? When I saw her today after school I noticed that she was again wearing head to toe pink. I’m sure this mom is a great mom, I just found it unfortunate she was ignoring evidence right in front of her that not all kids fit the gender stereotypes she was literally insisting were true.

Let’s just let kids be kids, yes?

I know I’ve shared a similar story to this before, but a photo sent in by PPBB Community Member Penny Collins got me thinking about a book I read this past spring called “The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls” by Emily Kane. I hope you check it out, it is eye-opening to how parents parent to stereotype.

Oh, it is laundry day at the Collins’ house, and these pants belong to Penny’s daughter.

These pants belong to a hard-playing little girl.

How Big a Deal Are Gender Differences?

Love this graphic! Thanks Kristi Gold for sending it in!

I was asked the question that appears below on our facebook page, which I read after returning home from greeting families at our back-to-school event. I serve as president of our PTA, so I try to make sure to say hello to as many of our new families as possible. I met girls in fancy dresses and girls in Stars Wars t-shirts. I met boys in dress shirts and ties (both purple!) and boys in sports gear.

My own daughter was wearing a purple dress with sparkle belt and sparkle shoes. My son was wearing a t-shirt, sweatpants, and a tube of Greek yogurt all down his front. But there are weeks when my daughter will refuse to put on a dress or brush her hair. There is a good chance that anytime my son knows he is going to see his babysitter or kindergarten teacher he wants to look “handsomely” with his hair shaped into a mohawk and will pop the collar on his shirt. I attribute all of this to personality, not gender.

So what do I think about gender differences?

Kathleen asked: “I respect and buy into the idea of raising girls without the existing stereotypes of girlhood, but I would like to hear your take on respecting the differences between girls and boys also. Is there any room for the recognition that girls and boys are also different? How do you pay respect to that? I definitely believe in countering the gender stereotypes, but not at the expense of denying any differences.”

I answered: In what ways are boys and girls different? (and how can that question be answered without using gender stereotypes?) Can you answer that question by saying “This is true of all boys, this is true of all girls?” Or would it be more accurate to say, “This is true of some but not all boys, some but not all girls?”

I don’t understand what is meant by “but not at the expense of denying any differences”. What does that imply? That systems of society will fail and begin to fall apart if we were to admit that boys and girls are actually more alike than we often tend to believe? Is much of our gender preoccupation in the US based largely around our religious roots and our feelings on homosexuality? Who benefits if we adhere to strict gender roles and gender expression?  Gender is a variant when looked at across many cultures, which shows that while biological sex can most times be more definitive (but not always), gender is actually a very static concept.

Here’s what I believe: There are many ways to be a girl, there are many ways to be a boy. Colors are for everyone. There is no right or wrong way to do it. I think our culture greatly influences how children will express gender, to the point we make it the most salient quality about a person. I find that offensive. I find that as offensive as if we were talking about race.

I have worked with hundreds of children over a period of twenty years, and am now raising a daughter and a son. The differences I see in them, in all children, is based on personality, not gender. There is nothing biological about the stereotypes our culture believes, and research in neuroscience and pediatric brain plasticity proves this. I have met too many kids who are hybrids of “girly girls” and “tomboys”, and boys who have traits that are both “all boy” and “princess boys”. I think we condition certain qualities in or out of our children as opposed to letting them be their own people. I believe in letting children show us who they want to be in this world, our job is providing a safe and loving and creative environment  for them to grow in.

I think the differences we cling to, we believe so strongly in, we chastise our children for bending…..I believe it is all folklore. We know marketing is ambient in our culture, there is no way to escape it. Marketers make more money for their clients if they divide people into subgroups who need different versions of different products. That way there is more to sell, more to buy. So are these differences we think we see true, or manufactured? Are parents even aware they are teaching the gender binary to their children?

There is a great variation among males, there is great variation among females. But between males and females? Not so much.

I think the time spent asserting and giving voice to how different men and women are, boy and girls are, we are unable to hear and see how similar we are.

I highly recommend reading:
“Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troubling Gaps – And What We Can Do About It” by Lise Eliot
“The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls” by Emily Kane

This video is about forty minutes long, but watch just a few minutes starting at the 2:00 marker if you are pressed for time.

Lise Eliot: Pink Brain, Blue Brain from Book Passage on FORA.tv