Raising Our Children to Be Gender Sensitive, in a Hypersensitive World
Gender stereotyping and how to deal with the associated issues are big news right now. The greatest difficulty as far as I’m concerned is that unless you or someone you love is directly affected by the matter, it’s just not on most people’s radar. Is that ignorant, or simply uneducated?
The fact is, these are modern concepts which in the previous generation were just not mainstream discussions, nor in the public consciousness. I’m all for educating ourselves, and as parents I believe it’s our responsibility to educate our children too; that said, in the meantime we should be lenient – accepting a ‘grace period’ of adapting to new rules and adopting new attitudes. I’d like to think the next generation will be more clued up, and until then we can all be grown-ups and work towards eliminating any negative connotations by simply being kind.
But navigating this delicate subject is tricky. There are occasions I’ve felt that the campaign for equality has tipped over into a crusade for recognition at any cost.
That may sound harsh, but while I believe in an egalitarian society, I don’t believe it’s necessary to thrust certain lifestyles down other people’s throats. That’s not prudish or prejudiced, I just believe in the right to quietly live our lives – all of us: you do you and I’ll do me.
How can we raise our children to be gender sensitive?
So how should we be raising our youngsters to both retain their innocence, while also be completely accepting of the diverse world around them? I’m not sure how realistic it is to place huge expectations on young children in terms of how they view and categorise their little orbit, without having quite involved conversations.
Here’s the thing: arbitrary labels are so pervasive that any changes are going to take time. And children use labels as a way of learning – red/blue, big/small, he/she. There’s no malice intended when a child makes assumptions on the basis of a binary system. So how and when are we supposed to broaden that spectrum for little people, when most of us are struggling to comprehend the complexities even as adults?
It’s a nigh on impossible balance to strike, with it being almost inevitable that somebody will disagree no matter how liberal a child’s upbringing is.
Is advice for raising gender sensitive kids realistic?
There are many suggestions for gently introducing the concept of gender without stereotypes, and some are undoubtedly insightful; others I find impractical. However they’re all food for thought and great starting points for opportunities to learn. Don’t assume somebody else’s gender? Nobody is going to be able to adhere to that in real life, least of all children. Besides which, our curious small people have an inherent desire to classify and order, and telling them we don’t know and we mustn’t guess when visual cues suggest an obvious answer borders on ridiculous.
For what it’s worth, I have a theory about this sensitive subject. I believe that if equality across the board were a reality, then gender would be absolutely arbitrary. If every person were able to be who they want, dress how they choose, do the jobs they wish, and have interests which stir their desires, then masculinity and femininity would be completely irrelevant. All of the connotations are contrived labels attached to one sex or the other, and in most cases for capitalist gain. Stripping them away allows freedom of expression, with gender becoming inconsequential. In this sense, gender caused inequality, and reinstating equality removes the need to gender. Clearly something I’ve given a lot of thought to! This excellent post on why we need to stop devaluing femininity explains it better.
Here’s how my family interpret gender stereotyping, and how we plan to raise our girls:
1. We encourage our children’s curiosity in all things and no topic is off-limits.
2. We promote their interest in STEM subjects and since my eldest daughter first mentioned her interest in becoming an astronaut, I’ve wholeheartedly embraced it as a future career path if she applies herself. I bought her a spacesuit for her fourth birthday, alas she was not impressed because it’s not ‘real’ and she can’t wear it in space; it remains unworn in the bottom of her dressing-up box. It made me realise how seriously she’s taking this and we’ve since watched youtube videos about living in space. I was delighted to note the astronaut giving the tour was female, and made astronomy as a career choice feel very accessible.
3. I’ve never been keen on shocking pink, and each time she picks out something overtly ‘girly’ it breaks my heart a little bit because I do actively encourage her towards other options. Of course, there’s nothing wrong in her embracing her femininity; it’s just that I happen to prefer subtle pink or floral blues (and I’m rather cynical and suspect her grandmother’s unwelcome purchases may be to thank).
4. I don’t automatically pick up the ‘girls’ option for my children. I’m usually more drawn to something neutral or subtly feminine, and if they make their own selection it might be the colour intended for either gender. We’ve had drinks bottles in every colour of the rainbow, and more recently I bought a Spiderman toothbrush for my eldest which she was thrilled with. I still think she’d have chosen the princess one if she’d seen them side by side on the shelf, but I put that down to conditioning (see above point!).
5. Above all else, we allow our girls to make their own (age appropriate) decisions.
Essentially, my husband and I guide our eldest daughter towards broadening her horizons, whilst also allowing her the freedom to explore and make her own choices.
Regrettably, once our children reach preschool age their influences shift and they’re usually exposed to opinions from authority figures and peers alike, which may not align with those at home. The best we can do is continue to educate and guide our children towards a predisposition for tolerance, compassion and kindness. The rest is up to them.
If we do our jobs well, we may just change the world. But it will take time.