When it comes to the question of gender roles and raising young children, many parents have their opinions. Some have quite visceral (and often negative) reactions to the notion that a boy can wear pink and own a doll, or that a girl can enjoy playing with toy cars or soldiers. Others encourage their kids to subvert gender norms.
I belong to the second camp. I believe in opening dialogue with kids — especially about the complicated nature of identity, and even more especially as it relates to gender (among other hot-button issues). Making sure there is a safe space for discussion of these issues is essential for raising confident and self-aware children. It's crucial to challenge the gender assumptions we make as a society together with our kids, not only raising their awareness on a personal level, but also helping to change the dangerous consequences of our culture's tendency to trap all individuals in a "gender box."
I learned to dispel with the nature versus nurture argument early on in parenting. I accepted that my most cherished notions were quite irrelevant as my children grew to define their own unique places on the gender spectrum. I came at it from a nontraditional angle. I was determined as a new mom not to assume that traditional gender stereotypes should define toys and play.
For instance, my daughter was born into her big brother's household, and I made no attempt to acquire "girlie" toys for her; she was surrounded by blocks, trucks and cars. When she discovered someone else's baby doll at a playground at 18 months of age, she refused to relinquish it and cried woefully for a full hour until, feeling like the most neglectful mother in the world, I took her straight to the shops and purchased her very first doll. She never looked at truck again. And that was OK, too.
Not long after, my truck-obsessed five year-old son fell in love with a handmade cloth doll he fondly named Nessa. For about a year, my boy carried his two prized toys everywhere: in one hand, Nessa, and in the other, his pink toy truck. My kids know exactly who they are — they are themselves.
I've learned a great deal since then. Here are four things all parents must know about gender and raising kids:
1. Forget about the nature versus nurture argument.
Most parents who have both sons and daughters know that there are certain boy-child versus girl-child tendencies that you cannot ignore, and that often result from socialization (hence my daughter demanding a doll).
However, any person's interests, talents and preferences exist on a spectrum regardless of gender. So allow your kids to be who they want to be. Don't ever try to limit their preferences and expressions of personal identity based on what you think they should be, and especially not based on cultural gender assumptions.
If your daughter wants to play rugby or your son wants a Barbie, so be it! Self-esteem is highly correlated to feeling accepted, especially by one's parents.
2. Girls can take risks. Lots of them.
Traditionally, we have been taught the message that girls are nurturing and good at deep and intimate friendships, but are not wired to be aggressive, risk-taking and physically-active like boys. Similarly, we are taught that boys don't readily express their emotions, and particularly not vulnerable ones like fear and anxiety.
It's time to dispel these myths. Women will continue to remain behind men in rates of pay and career attainment as long as these kinds of messages go unexamined, especially by parents who endorse them! Yes, some girls are very nurturing, but lots of girls are also wonderfully assertive. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook exec and author of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead argues in her book that women are held back in business precisely because they are socialized to be more concerned with being nice than with taking risks.
3. Men feel things as deeply as anyone else.
Furthermore, men will continue to suffer a crisis of depression until they are encouraged to express their emotions. As I mentioned, boys are socialized to be aggressive, assertive and tough when it comes to emotions. But really, all of us as humans should be encouraged early on in our development to share feelings, nurture each other and value friendships — just as much as young girls are traditionally socialized and expected to do.
In Australia, men account for three out of every five suicides. Of course, why any one individual commits suicide cannot be understood in terms of generalizations. But I will note that common reported factor in male depression is a lack of intimate friendships, in addition to a tendency among men to sublimate their emotional needs.
Stereotypically, men have been expected to bear the brunt of the financial responsibility, and are duly burdened with a belief that "to be a man" requires assertiveness, stoicism and a kind of worldly notion of "success". By extension, the absence of such qualities often implies "failure" at manhood and is further grounds for depression, or at least profound feelings of inadequacy.
4. Silence is violence.
As parents, we all must know that ignoring those who identify with unconventional gender identities is a way of unwittingly promoting gender assumptions — at the peril of these individuals.
From childhood on, when boys are seen as "too girlie" or girls as "boyish," they are at risk of bullying and violence. Transgender individuals (those who do not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth based on their genitals) are at a tremendous risk of victimization and depression.
By allowing our kids to find their own place on a gender spectrum and keeping the dialogue open with them about society's pressure to be otherwise, we can help raise kids with greater self-esteem and create a world which is more tolerant, inclusive, and happy.