Issues related to sexism and gender discrimination, prevalent worldwide, are increasingly being brought to our attention, especially by the media. As with other societies, in the Indian society too, attitudes towards gender-specific expectations are quite firmly established. As a parent, you can play a vital role in correcting this trend. But to do this, it is important for you to understand when gender realisation and bias start taking root in a child’s psyche. You will be surprised to know that children as young as three start identifying themselves as male or female, and by the age of five are relatively certain of their gender identity. Therefore, you must start teaching your children early on to be respectful towards individuals of the opposite sex. Teaching children to respect the opposite sex also assumes significance in wake of the following finding.
While it is commonly assumed that biological sex determines behaviour, behavioural scientists tend to differentiate inherited genetic traits from learned gender roles. It is yet to be understood which behavioural traits are inherited and which are learned, but it is clear that what we learn from our parents and other influences our future behaviour. For example, if we identify boys with being ‘strong’, they will see that as a male trait that they should demonstrate. Similarly when we identify girls with care and nurturing, we make them understand that these are the qualities that are appreciated in them. Therefore, with right upbringing, it is possible for children of either gender to grow up into strong, caring, nurturing and well-rounded individuals with a unique gender identity.
Gender roles in our daily lives
It is common to find parents treating boys and girls differently, which starts right from the time of infancy. Caregivers, unconsciously, tend to play rougher with baby boys compared with baby girls. Girls are encouraged to be more considerate and compassionate, whereas boys get away with being aggressive. The statement ‘boys will be boys’ highlights the society’s acceptance of aggressive or destructive behaviours in boys but not in girls. This bias even extends to the toys girls and boys are given—while boys are given construction equipment and cars, girls are given dolls and stuffed animals to play with. Even in pretend-play games, often little boys are encouraged to roughhouse while girls are prompted to play the roles of princesses waiting for their princes. As a result of such gender-specific play choices, boys who choose to play with dolls are laughed at. Even the girls’ section in a toy store is often clearly demarcated to make sure there is no mistake.
Children observe these early on and learn that there are socially acceptable ways for them to conform to traditional gender-specific roles.
Children learn from us
Parents tend to inadvertently teach children through their actions and behaviours. Children form ideas about gender roles and identities by observing adults around them. The way parents speak to each other and the roles they play at home significantly influences the attitudes of children. For instance, if a boy consistently observes his father mistreating his mother, he is likely to believe that such behaviour is acceptable; so, not only will he treat his mother similarly, but also other women in his life.
Parents should understand that every child is born with both masculine and feminine qualities. But when we push children to focus on only a few qualities, we end up suppressing other important aspects of their personality. This inhibits their natural all-round development. As a result, they grow up to disrespect those who exhibit qualities they don’t think are important, particularly in a world where masculine qualities are considered ‘superior’ or ‘worthier’.
So, how can we ensure that children grow up with a healthy attitude towards members of the opposite gender? Here are some tips.
1. Change starts with us
To change children’s perceptions about gender, we need to first look at our own attitudes and also that of other adults who regularly spend time with our children. It is important that the adults show equal respect towards roles of all individuals in the house. Even if the father is the breadwinner and the mother is the homemaker, their contributions should be equally appreciated. Statements like “Don’t bother your father, he worked hard all day”, imply that household tasks such as cooking, cleaning, childcare, etc., which are performed by the mother, are not important. Fathers can also influence children greatly by their actions. By helping in household chores, they can teach children that roles are not gender-dependent, and that each task is equally important.
2. Observe their games
In addition to copying adults, young children also learn through play. By observing them during play, we can understand how they perceive gender. For instance, by watching children role-play different family members, we can get an idea about what they are learning about different gender roles.
3. Be careful about what you say
We should be mindful of the messages we pass on to our children. If we often tell a little girl that she looks beautiful, she may begin to focus excessively on improving her looks and draw her sense of self-worth from her physical appearance. Especially around puberty, girls are sensitive towards both positive and negative reinforcements about their appearance. Also, if we discourage young boys from displaying their emotions by saying that it is a sign of ‘weakness’, it may adversely impact their emotional health. So, remember, the feedback or compliment our children receive from us affects the way their personalities develop.
4. Monitor media influence
Media and popular children’s literature reinforce gender stereotypes that are already prevalent in the society. Most popular fairy tales propagate the perception that a ‘damsel in distress’ is always rescued by the ‘knight in the shining armour’. Similarly, superhero movies tend to focus on men as strong and virtuous beings. Although it is impossible to completely prevent such content from influencing children, we can help them process these messages the right way through discussion or play. Controlling what our children read or watch can help in preventing them from conforming with rigid gender stereotypes.
5. Encourage self-driven career aspirations
Often girls hear remarks such as, “it’s ok if they don’t earn money, they can get married.” Such comments adversely affect both girls and boys, as they grow up with wrong set of beliefs. While girls are made to believe that they can be dependent, boys are burdened with the expectation of being the sole breadwinners of their families. Parents should refrain from placing gender-based expectations on children and instead encourage boys and girls to explore their interests and all possible career options.
By following these tips, you can instil respect in your children for everyone, irrespective of their gender.
The author is a counsellor and trainer at PARIVARTHAN Counselling, Training and Research Centre, Bengaluru.