Not long ago, this LEGO pamphlet from the 1970s went viral.
It contained a note to parents advising them to let their sons build dollhouses and their daughters build spaceships — if that's what the kids wanted.
LEGOs in the 1970s were gender neutral — just colorful bricks that could become anything in a child's imagination. The advice struck a nerve with me because, 40 years later, we're still a society that divides gender into distinct domains. Though we've progressed, gender stereotypes are still particularly evident in our kids’ toys and the marketing associated with them.
Recent studies show that most toy advertisements market primarily to one sex or the other and that they reinforce traditional gender roles. Toys presented to girls focus on beauty and skills, such as caregiving and nurturing, while boys are offered toys that represent strength and power, like cars and planes. Furthermore, toy weapons, which are predominantly sold to boys, teach that power is associated with violence.
It can be a real quandary for parents to navigate this terrain. Obviously, we want our daughters to learn to be strong and powerful and our boys to learn to nurture. Gender roles are changing and becoming less distinct in the society they're growing up in, but it's not always easy to work against a cultural machinery that is still very traditional. Our kids continue to see these representations in the toys and advertisements targeted at them, as well as in their schools, media, and home lives.
I bought my son a baby doll for his first birthday. He never played with it, or at least not as a doll — he did stack it on top of his other toys so he could better escape his play yard. Our daughter, on the other hand, loves all the toys, especially the trains that had belonged to her older brothers. But she also loves things I would call "girly." She gravitates toward anything that sparkles — stuff associated with beauty. She's only two, but I'm already struggling with how to strike a balance that nurtures her feminine side without quashing traits like strength and assertiveness that are usually associated with males.
So, what can we do to help our kids have a healthy concept of gender?
Talk openly with your children about gender stereotypes.
Gender is an issue for my seven-year-old son, as well. He just "came out" to me as a huge “Frozen” fan. "I can't help it, Mom!" he shouted while dancing to the soundtrack, "I love this movie! I just love it."
I tried to explain to him that everyone on earth apparently loves “Frozen” and that there is nothing wrong with loving it. But then I found out the real issue; he was worried that the boys at school would make fun of him if they found out he liked the movie, "because it's a girls’ movie," he told me.
In the conversation that followed, I supported my son's love for “Frozen.” But I also let him know that I understood his fears about being ridiculed. And then, as best I could, I explained to him that the boys at school who would tease him are the ones who are doing something wrong. I encouraged him to accept himself — and others.
Help your children critique the gender messages they receive — especially in the media.
Recent research concludes that children conform to traditional gender roles much more easily than to egalitarian ones. Researchers suggest that kids need help detecting gender bias so that they can operate against it. Children conform to whatever media is put in front of them and will internalize these messages. It's up to you to help them understand that they don't have to go along with these stereotypes.
It may seem too complicated to explain this stuff to your kids, but they'll understand you as you reinforce the same message over time. Tell your daughter that Cinderella's waistline is unrealistic and that she doesn't have to live by that standard. Tell her that her body is perfect just the way it is.
Give your boys the same kind of feedback. If you see one of their cartoon characters acting in sexist ways (and if you watch any of them, you will!) point it out and explain why that's an issue.
Model egalitarian behavior at home.
As much as you can, be a good role model for your child. Show her that you can be a nurturing caregiver if you're a man. Similarly, as a woman, show her that you can mow the lawn, shovel snow, or run a boardroom. You're probably doing many of these things already! Very few of us fully conform to traditional gender roles.
I haven't prepared a meal since I got married — my husband does all the cooking. And our kids are so used to it that they think it's the norm. Granted, he's also the guy they go to for their science and math homework. But I'm the one who knows everything about “Star Wars,” and the one who pushes them to cultivate ambition and drive.
Reinforce respectful views on gender.
If you overhear or observe your children being sexist, that's the time to intervene and have a teaching moment. Don't let your son be the one who makes fun of another boy because his favorite color is pink. Don't let your daughter think she has to be thin to be beautiful. Or that beautiful applies only to girls or to looks.
It's important to help them be themselves, but also to be respectful and tolerant of variations in what’s considered "normal."
We often think the issue of sexism primarily relates to girls because we don't want them to grow up thinking that the only thing that matters is their appearance. But our sons are just as important. They need to learn how to express their emotions or embrace their fondness for things that are "sparkly" like “Frozen.” Whoever they want to be or whatever they want to do, we have to let them know that it's okay — whether it conforms to traditional roles or not.
Aina, O., & Cameron, P. (2011). Why Does Gender Matter? Counteracting Stereotypes With Young Children. Dimensions of Early Childhood, 39(3), 11-19. Retrieved November 22nd from SECA
Grohol, J. (2013, December 26). Cars for Boys, Dolls for Girls: Toy Ads Still Sexist. Retrieved November 22, 2014, from Psych Central
Pahlke, E., Bigler, R., & Martin, C. (2014). Can Fostering Children’s Ability to Challenge Sexism Improve Critical Analysis, Internalization, and Enactment of Inclusive, Egalitarian Peer Relationships? Journal of Social Issues, 70,(1), 115-133. Retrieved November 22, 2014 from Wiley