As I sit and kill time on my laptop, I come across a health blog which declares that, “Gender is regarded as one of the social determinants of health.” “Obviously”, I tell my inner goddess.
Gender defines a person’s identity, sets definitive differences between a male and female and refers to the social attributes and opportunities associated with an individual’s biological sex. These attributes, opportunities and relationships are socially constructed and are learned through socialization processes. They are context/ time-specific and changeable. Gender ultimately determines what is expected, allowed and valued in a women or a man in a given context.
So what does all this have anything to do with kids you inquire? I’ll elucidate after a bit of imparting of knowledge…
The basic unanimous definition of gender equity is that gender is never detached from race, ethnicity, language, disability, income, or other diversities that define us as human beings. It offers a framework for educational reform in which all females and males receive equitable treatment and achieve equitable outcomes in school and beyond throughout life.
A good deal of the literature I perused on gender equity is concerned with the fact that children are often treated differently in school based on their sex. Educators are expected to remedy this situation even though by the time children reach preschool age they have already been socialized to expect, submit to, prefer, and even insist upon disparate treatment. Both male and female children are sure that it is proper and necessary for everyone to have distinguishable names, referential terms, costumes, and modes of action based on what is considered appropriate for their gender roles in our culture.
Early socialization in the home teaches male children that they have rights which they must defend in order to avoid being treated like females, and, inevitably, breeds contempt for females. As females we are taught that being teased, trivialized, disparaged, and scored isn’t worth getting upset about because “boys will be boys”, “life isn’t fair” and we should be proud of our genital status rather than our social status or accomplishments.
What early patriarchal socialization actually does is to waive the right of female children to equal treatment, without the knowledge or consent of the children whose rights are being waived, in favor of separate, different, unequal, and therefore discriminatory treatment based on sex.
Children learn stereotypes in gender roles through gender socialization, a process of adopting cultural roles according to one’s sex that can start at birth and continues throughout life.
Where Does the Imposition Stem From?
It goes back through centuries of history so pin pointing the exact chronological timeframe will be next to impossible, thus we’ll stick to modern day for both our comfort. This infliction embarks on its imposing journey right from the moment when the sex of the baby has been confirmed. From then on, every action committed is to distinguish the baby from its opposite sex.
It’s all about blue or pink colours, dollies or monster trucks, Hello Kitty or Batman, and the literally never ending list goes on. It doesn’t stop there; every phase of life brings either a gradual or sudden change in a child’s existence. Parents do everything in their power and capacity to raise their children “right” and minimize any sort of stress. Children are curious little angels and require an instant answer for everything under the sun. I feel that subconsciously, the parents with set notions, ideals and principles spoon feed them to their children which actually later become an obligation.
Boys are diligently required to “man up”, be aggressive and dominating, be fond of action, sports, violence, gadgets, display their masculine gift of an iron will and of course oppose and abhor anything and everything which carries the slightest fragrance of a girl’s interest or habit. What are the girls tutored to do? They’re told to do the reverse of what the opposite sex does which includes displaying their feminine gift of sensitivity.
To be fair to the socially liberal lot, we evidently live in an era where gender norms are to be wrecked, or at least regularly prodded and questioned. Boys do play with ponies and girls do read comics, infuriatingly criticizing the rather demeaning or weak portrayal of women “super heroes”…and I agree with them all the way! It is a sign of being a decent parent not to coerce your child to like whatever stereotypically boy- or girl-themed shows, toys, movies, or books happen to match his or her anatomy.
Were you aware of the fact that in Sweden there’s a preschool which goes by the name “Egalia” where children are referred to as “friends” rather than boys or girls? Talk about it being a modern and liberal world!
I happened to read about a Toronto couple who had kept the gender of their new baby a secret because they didn’t want the child growing up with any gender-imposed limitations or expectations. Only the parents, siblings and midwives who delivered little Storm know the child’s gender. They want the child to decide for his/herself when or if to reveal his/her gender.
Storm also has 2 older brothers (Jazz and Kio), who everyone has always known were boys, but who have always been allowed to choose for themselves what they want to do with that information. The boys get to decide how they want their hair – Five-year-old Jazz likes to wear his long in 3 braids. Two-year-old Kio likes his curly hair about chin-length.
They choose their own clothes and their own toys. Jazz likes pink, loves to paint his nails and wear sparkly jewelry. Kio likes purple. Both boys are usually mistaken for girls. This apparently upsets Jazz because he wants people to know he’s a boy. Perhaps if he laid off the nail polish…
I personally harbour no issues with letting kids make choices. I’m a fan of child-led parenting, but that doesn’t mean the kids are in charge of everything. I firmly believe that you still need to parent. You need to establish some sort of schedule – mealtimes, play times, quiet times, bath times, and bed times. You need to make healthy food choices for your kids. You need to establish boundaries for acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.
And, to some extent you need to give some sort of guidance on how the kids present themselves in public. Isn’t this mandatory as far as parenting is concerned? Guiding your kids so they will establish a healthy relationship with the culture in which they are living.
That doesn’t mean your kids have to be little clones of all the other kids. Then again, that doesn’t mean they can’t push some boundaries, be individuals and express their personalities. For instance, if 5-year-old Jazz likes to wear pink dresses, that’s fine and dandy. But if he’s also upset about getting mistaken for a girl and about other kids not wanting to play with him, maybe Jazz’s parents could explain to him why this is happening and suggest that if he wants to fit in more there are ways of achieving that.
It’s all very well for parents to have a non-conformist philosophy and rebel against cultural norms, but, while they think they’re letting their kids choose everything for themselves, they are also imposing their own philosophies and choices on their kids.
Is Jazz really choosing pink for himself or are his parents, ever-so-subtly, perhaps even unconsciously guiding him in that direction to prove to the world how nonconformist they are?
On top of all that, Storm’s parents have resolutely forced Storm’s brothers to keep their sibling’s gender a secret. They’re not allowed to refer to Storm as he or she – they have to say “Z” instead. When changing the baby’s diaper in public, they hide in closets so no one will accidentally see.
What sort of impact will all this have on Storm in the long run as well on the two brothers? I can already smell the foul stench of bullying in the near future which is just sad.
Gender Stereo-typed Toys:
Gender-specific toys are one tool that teaches and reinforces stereotypical gender roles in children. From their birth boys and girls are treated differently so they learn the differences between men and women according to the ethnic, cultural and religious values of their society. At a very early age children create an image of themselves as boy or girl via their interaction with parents, teachers, and other members of society, their toys and games.
Toys are a powerful tool to teach children gender-stereotyped behavior. Toy stores often have separate sections for boys. There are very few toys that are considered to be gender-neutral and therefore suitable for both boys and girls.
Boys’ toys convey a message that active, aggressive behavior is appropriate for boys, while girls’ toys teach girls to nurture, to be quiet and take care of their appearance. Common toys for girls are dolls, kitchen sets, houses, and play makeup kits. The message that such toys send is that girls should stay home, cook, clean and look after the children, reinforcing the stereotype of a woman as mother and home-maker. At the same time they also teach girls how important appearance is for social acceptance. Dolls, including the internationally famous Barbie, often impose a standard of beauty that is not representative of most women but one that is socially accepted.
Girls’ toys and games usually encourage girls to sit and play quietly, teaching them the stereotype that females are better at simple repetitive tasks. Girls are not specifically stimulated to take part in active games but rather to be more careful and quiet. Boys’ toys and games tend to be more constructive and mind-stimulating. Some typical boys’ toys enhance the development of coordination and problem-solving skills, which reinforces the stereotype that boys are better at tasks that require higher level of cognition. Through their toys boys learn to take a masculine role, be active and assertive, and even take part in violent activities. In addition, boys’ toys and games are often related to adventure and activities outside the home, which promotes active participation in the outside world.
If a child prefers toys that are meant for the opposite sex, other children and even adults may be very harsh on it labeling it as sissy or tom boy. Advertisements for toys also help reinforce the same gender stereotypes. In commercials girls are typically shown playing with dolls or makeup, while boys are playing with train sets, racing cars or battling action figures. While boys may be portrayed playing in the yard or park, girls are most often found playing in their bedrooms. By giving their children gender-stereotyped toys parents actually limit their freedom to explore different roles. Despite their biological differences young boys and girls generally show no mental differences in play. Therefore it is unnecessary to impose gender stereotypes from an early age, which suggests that gender-neutral and cross-gender play in young children can be encouraged.
In my opinion, gender identity is not something you can impose on a child or free a child from. Nor can you protect your child from cultural gender expectations and biases. I get that these and many other parents want their children’s identities to be based on who they are, not what gender they are. But ultimately, gender is something which cannot be denied or played with.
I’m not a parent so I’m in no position to pass judgement on anyone whatsoever. What I can do is be the bearer of friendly and positive advice. Avoid shoving things down your offspring’s or relative’s throat. Allow them to explore their true selves if not completely free from hetronormative stereo type roles but to empower them not encroach them.