Typically, the first question asked when a family announces a pregnancy is: “Is it a boy or a girl?”
As a society, we seem to have an innate interest in identifying and categorizing by sex, even in an era when many modern parents (and even stores such as Target) are moving away from the boy/girl, blue/pink dichotomy.
Childhood development experts tell us that most children do not embrace a gender identity until they are about two or three years old. If you are not fixed on relatively recent trends in color palettes (pink used to be very masculine and blue quite feminine until the 21st century), a baby’s sex should really only be an issue at diaper-changing or bath times.
How to Create a Supportive Environment for All Genders
If you want to avoid reinforcing gender stereotypes, there are several strategies to try. For instance, parents and guardians can use language that goes beyond appearance when talking with young girls, asking less about clothes or hairstyles and more about interests or experiences. Adults can also encourage young girls to participate in active play and ensure that they are not sharing or helping more than their male peers.
Similarly, it’s important to send the message that boys can be rewarded for nurturing behavior, showing their emotions, listening, and playing well as part of a group. Adults can make it a habit to ask young boys how they are feeling, and present positive examples of communicating emotions. If we make a conscious effort to share these lessons, many gender stereotypes may die out. After all, we are already part of a generation where most mothers work and most fathers are involved in the home.
While we still have a long way to go, we are also in an era of far more widespread understanding of transgender issues. Those who care for young children need to be aware of honoring and recognizing the changing needs of those who do not feel at home in the bodies into which they were born. Being more open and flexible regarding naming, dress, and other avenues of gender expression could help prevent suicides and assaults that affect transgender youth at staggering rates. And families today have access to more extensive resources than ever to broach these topics, such as books that explore transgender issues in an age-appropriate way for young readers.
In the classroom, teachers can partner with parents by encouraging girls’ participation in subjects where women are underrepresented, such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. They can ensure that all children, regardless of gender, have the opportunity for physical activity, which in turn will allow these learners to focus on academics when required. They can highlight varying career paths to which girls and boys may aspire, from doctor to lawyer to police officer to teacher. Refrain from phrases such as “that’s just for girls” or “boys will be boys,” which only serve to reinforce a false binary. Allow dedicated time for coeducation, as some age groups may self-select into exclusively single-sex interactions if left to their own devices.
Both parents and teachers can call out sexist language and behavior when it occurs, whether it originates with children themselves or other adults speaking near impressionable audiences. We can model respectful interactions with members of all sexes. We can avoid putting down others for adhering to or bucking gender stereotypes, as there are a myriad of ways to be a girl or a boy.
Resources Families and Teachers Can Use
Some of the best resources for gender-inclusive or all-gender education include:
the book, toy, and movie recommendation website, A Mighty Girl
the company that produces a range of construction toys for girls spearheaded by a female founder, GoldieBlox
The New York Times bestseller “Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture” by Peggy Orenstein, and tongue-in-cheek children’s literature such as Robert Munsch’s classic, “The Paper Bag Princess”; or the “Free to Be…You and Me” album and book. In fact, there are dozens of age-appropriate books that defy gender stereotypes and are great family reads.
Even merchandisers seems to be getting the message, given the 180-degree turn recently performed by Mattel in its latest Barbie ad.
With such quality information and resources available, there has never been a better time to help our young people explore the full range of their options without unnecessarily limiting them based on gender.
Want to learn more about the role gender plays in the classroom? Check out the Noodle article: The Achievement Gap We Don’t Talk About: A Parent’s Guide to Addressing Gender Bias.