Yesterday, my young sons and I were shopping when I heard another young boy begin to cry loudly in the next aisle. Immediately, I heard a man hiss, “Stop that crying right now. Only girls cry. Are you a little girl now? Should I go buy you a little pink dress? Cut it out NOW!” I stopped in my tracks at this exchange as my sons looked at me with wide eyes. “Mama, why did he say that? All people cry, not just girls,” said my 4-year-old. He looked to his big brother for confirmation. My 6-year-old hesitated and looked at me. “Is crying only for girls?” As I explained to him that crying is not in fact limited to a specific sex, I realized that we have officially arrived at the pivotal place in every childhood where gender stereotyping begins.
I can tell them all day long that one’s genitalia or sexual disposition does not inherently confine a person to specific rules, but how do I make them believe it when our current society is fighting so hard against it? When TV shows consistently portray fathers as either deadbeats or doofuses who can’t be trusted with even the simplest of household tasks or childrearing. When ads for colognes and pants over-sexualize them, sending the message that they need to have a six-pack and a waif-like female by their side to appear masculine. When commercials tell them that there is a particular standard of manliness they will need to be liked and respected among their peers. How do I fix the seemingly unfixable?
According to the article “Avoiding Gender Stereotypes” on www.Parents.com, “Research shows that infants can tell the difference between males and females as early as their first year. What’s more, they begin forming gender stereotypes as soon as they know they are boys and girls.”
In other words, it is normal for children at this age to try to explore and understand the rules of the world — what is and what isn’t. Our job as parents however, is to help them navigate the muddied waters, so that they can grow into emotionally and mentally healthy adults.
Let’s start from the beginning. Gender is defined in the dictionary as “the state of being male or female—used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones.” This means that gender is not about whether you are a girl or a boy as defined by your reproductive organs. Gender is what society deems appropriate for males and females in regards to toys, clothes, movies, colors, sports and academic pursuits. For example, society generally frowns upon boys’ wearing pink and girls’ playing football because of gender constraints.
It’s important to understand, however, that gender stereotyping can be damaging to a child’s learning his or her sense of self and place in the world. Author William Pollack, PH.D, writes in Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, “Boys are made to feel shame over and over, in the midst of growing up, through what I call society’s shame-hardening process,” he says. “The idea is that a boy needs to be disciplined, toughened up, made to act like a ‘real man,’ be independent, keep the emotions in check. A boy is told that, ‘big boys don’t cry,’ that he shouldn’t be a ‘mama’s boy.’ If these things aren’t said directly, these messages dominate in subtle ways in how boys are treated—and therefore how boys come to think of themselves.”
Boys aren’t just told to hide their vulnerability and emotion, refrain from playing certain games and wearing certain colors, they also are given an array of rules that they are expected to abide by around women.
Kansas City mom Heather Birdwell feels that one aspect of gender stereotyping that bothers her is that boys are taught to do certain things for girls. “Boys are always told that they must do special things specifically for women. In our family, we teach respect over ‘stereotypical’ roles. I expect my daughter to hold a door open for someone behind her, just as much as I expect my son to grab a door for a person with their hands full. It doesn’t matter if that person is a man or woman, the rule should still apply.”
While I do believe that the gender lines are blurring as society begins to understand more about boys’ and girls’ emotional, mental and physical needs, it’s important that we work to lay the foundation for our children as they grow. How do we do this? There are several ways to avoid gender stereotyping:
- Encourage co-ed play dates.
- Reinforce behaviors that shatter stereotypes. For example, a father may tell a son in tears, “Sometimes I feel like crying, too.”
- Question all generalizations. Janice Garfinkel, a teacher in South Bellmore, NY, constantly tries to probe generalizations in her classroom. “In preschool, the girls tell the boys, ‘Pretend you’re the dad, and it’s time for you to come home from work. I’m the mom, and I’m taking care of the baby.’ I always ask the kids, ’Do you know any moms who go out to work each day?”
- Tune in to your own biases. “Parents should review their behavior to make sure they’re not doing or saying anything that feeds into something harmful,” says Charles Flatter, Ph.D., a professor of human development at the University of Maryland.
The tips above are helpful, but just the start. We have to do better for our boys. We have to teach them that it’s okay to express their emotions and that doing so doesn’t make them any less of a person. That it’s okay to be themselves in whatever capacity that entails.
“Boys can’t…” isn’t part of my vocabulary. “Be a kind, honest person” is. I think that’s a good lesson for all.