When crying is no longer a girly thing to do...
Busting gender stereotypes at home and inculcating a sense of gender equality in your child are steps towards ending gender violence and discrimination in society. Read on to find out more.
By Aruna Raghuram • 17 min read
When I was eight years old, my best friends were twins – Neha and Nandu. Their mother expected Neha to help with kitchen work, including grinding rice and urad dal to make idli batter. Nandu was allowed to idle away his time, playing and having fun. Even at that young age I would wonder, why this difference in treatment?
The other day, I spotted two greeting cards placed side by side in a shop. Both were meant for new parents. One proclaimed “Brilliant baby boy” while the other declared “Beautiful baby girl”. Again, I wondered, why this difference?
In both instances, the difference is caused by the different ways in which we perceive the two genders or attribute characteristics to people based on their gender, or gender stereotypes.
What does being gender sensitive entail?
Gender sensitivity is the ability to recognize issues and problems in the way societies look at gender. It is an understanding of discrimination and stereotyping based on gender. Teaching children to be gender sensitive has a bearing on their development, their choices, and the kind of persons they grow up to become.
Just like other values, children mostly imbibe gender sensitivity from their parents. Research amply demonstrates that lack of gender sensitivity leads to gender discrimination and that there is a significant relationship between parental attitudes and this discrimination.
Gender discrimination affects students both academically and personally.
This video, which went viral a few months ago, shows how schoolchildren believe in gender stereotypes (that a firefighter, surgeon or fighter pilot has to be a man) and how this belief can be challenged.
Sex and gender
Sex identifies the biological and physiological differences between men and women. The statement – ‘Women can give birth to children while men can’t’ – relates to sex. On the other hand, gender concerns the culturally specific roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate (and even desirable) for women and men. The statement – ‘Boys are better at mathematics than girls’ – relates to gender.
According to a training manual developed by UNESCO: “Gender sensitivity helps to generate respect for the individual regardless of gender. Gender sensitivity is not about pitting women against men. On the contrary, education that is gender sensitive benefits members of both sexes. It helps them determine which assumptions in matters of gender are valid and which are stereotyped generalisations.”
Developing gender sensitivity in your child
Let children choose their own toys
To a young child, a doll is the same as a toy car – something to play with. It is when parents or friends gift a boy a science kit and a girl a kitchen set that gender-based conditioning comes into play. Parents should allow their children to play with toys of their choice. Also, they could buy more gender-neutral toys (toys not meant for a specific gender) like building blocks, musical toys, art supplies and board games for their child. This is one of the first and foremost steps in creating a safe, gender-sensitive space for them.
Blakemore & Centers (2005) in their study ‘Characteristics of Boys’ and Girls’ Toys’, observe that toys that are not strongly gender-typed are more likely to optimally develop children’s physical, cognitive, academic, musical and artistic skills.
According to the study, “Strongly gender-typed toys might encourage attributes that aren’t ones you actually want to foster. For girls, this would include a focus on attractiveness and appearance, perhaps leading to a message that this is the most important thing - to look pretty. For boys, the emphasis on violence and aggression (weapons, fighting and aggression) might be less than desirable in the long run.”
Giving your child choices should extend to clothes and colours as well. Your child should be free to wear what she likes and decorate her room in a colour of her choice. Of course, if your son wants to wear a skirt, you will have to warn him that he may be subjected to ridicule and bullying because of gender-based conditioning prevalent in society.
Expose children to non-stereotypical books and movies
Instead of reading traditional fairy tales which relate how a princess is rescued by a brave prince, expose your child to folktales with strong female characters.
Advocate for gender equality Jayneen Sanders uses her picture storybook No difference Between Us to teach children about respectful relationships, choice, self-esteem, empathy and tolerance. The book’s protagonists are twins. Jess is a girl and Ben is a boy, but in all the major life scenarios, there is no difference between them. The cover of the book shows both children caring for dolls. The author seeks to convey the message that we are all human – everyone has hopes and dreams. Our gender is irrelevant.
Parents need to watch out for gender-biased content on the internet or television – movies, TV shows, advertisements, video games and music. If they spot the portrayal of gender stereotypes (such as women doing housework and men doing physical labour and outside jobs) they should explain to their child that these are outdated perceptions.
Educate your child on gender
At an appropriate age, explain to your child the difference between sex and gender. By the age of three, a child’s core gender identity (the gender he identifies with) is usually developed. While there may be biological reasons for a child’s gender identity, experts believe it is largely determined by environmental factors, particularly the way parents and peers treat children. As parents, ensure that gender identity is something your child chooses and is comfortable with, not something you force on the child based on social norms.
ParentCircle spoke to Dr Bittu Rajaraman, a faculty member at the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality, Ashoka University. Here is what she had to say:
Ideally, one should not assign a gender to children, but refer to them gender neutrally until they grow older and decide for themselves what their gender identity is. Teach your child that the personal choices of what to play with, what to study, what to wear, and whom to befriend, are free choices. They should not be dictated by regressive societal constraints that limit the full potential of children in the name of gender, caste, or any other divisive construct.
This applies to both their own choices as well as to others in their peer group. Parents needs to teach children to never belittle other children, and to stand up against friends being bullied in any way. And finally, one has to learn to listen to one's children, and create a supportive environment in which they can share their feelings with their family.
Get them thinking
Ask your six-year-old this riddle taken from the UNESCO manual: Deepak and his son Arjun are on their way to the market when they have a serious accident. Deepak is instantly killed while his son, injured and unconscious, is rushed to the nearest hospital. The surgeon on duty comes into the operating room to treat Arjun and becomes very upset. The surgeon says: “I cannot operate on this child. He is my son.”
How is this possible? It might not be obvious to your child that the surgeon could be Arjun’s mother. But it will get her thinking that she too could become a surgeon one day. Similarly, you could play games with your young child where there is a gender role reversal.
Parents should not have different rules for their sons and daughters. And they should be prepared to take on friends and family members who seek to reinforce regressive ideas. Tata Tea has released short, thought-provoking videos in a campaign to arouse gender sensitivity. One video shows a mother not allowing her daughter to play badminton with her brother, asking her to help her in the kitchen instead. When a boy finds that the rules meant for his sister do not apply to him, he believes that there’s a lot he can get away with that girls cannot. The seeds of gender discrimination are sown at home.
Another video shows a race for young children where a girl emerges the winner. The father of one of the boy participants asks his son: “You lost to a girl?” His son looks bewildered. The videos end with the message: “Inequality gets learnt. Equality needs teaching.”
Bust gender stereotypes at home
Reject the idea of gender-specific chores. Apart from assigning tasks equally between children, make it clear that there is nothing strange if a boy helps out in the kitchen or a girl fixes a light bulb. Some girls and women excel in traditionally male domains. Some boys and men are inclined toward activities traditionally reserved for woman. Rigid definitions of work meant for men and women are unnecessary and unnatural. Tell your child (and, if you are a father, show her by caring for her little sibling) that men can take care of babies too.
Children should be given the freedom to express themselves and be who they want to be. Parents should ensure that their children are free to choose colours, clothes, toys, and friends even when society tells them that some things are meant for boys and others for girls.
Most importantly, children follow what they see at home. That’s why it is important for parents to be sensitive around children when it comes to defining gender roles. As I’m an only child, my mother lives with us. My two teenaged daughters have grown up believing that it is not just a man’s responsibility to look after elderly parents. But it is also important to make children aware about the gender discrimination prevalent in society – how the male child usually gets more liberties and faces less expectations in terms of household work. This will help them find friends and partners who do not have such a bias.
- Anindita Mehta, scientist and mother of two teenaged daughters
Watch what you say
Parents shouldn’t allow statements and questions such as these to slip out: “Don’t walk like a girl” or “Why are you dressed like a tomboy?” They should also make it a point to use gender-neutral knowledge wherever it is called for. For instance, they could say firefighters (not firemen) and ballet dancers (not ballerinas) to make children realise that professions are not gender specific.
According to American writer Rebecca Asher, parents constantly interact with children in a gendered way without being aware of it. It may be in a look or touch indicating approval or disapproval, or the tone of conversation. She calls this “innocent socialisation”.
Encourage children to pursue careers and activities they like
There is still a lingering perception that STEM- (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related careers are more for boys. There is no proven reason why women cannot make good engineers. Similarly, men can turn out to be successful chefs and fashion designers.
American developmental psychologist Howard Gardner is best known for his theory of multiple intelligences. According to his theory, every child has different types of intelligences and talents. A boy may be gifted with musical intelligence while a girl may have well-developed logical-mathematical intelligence. It is up to parents to give them the opportunities to hone their talents. For this, parents must expose children to a variety of activities irrespective of their gender.
Allow your children to express emotions
A boy has as much right to cry as a girl has if he is upset, and a girl may want to shout and fight with someone to vent her anger. Children should be allowed to express themselves free of gender conditioning. If you tell a boy not to cry like a girl, you are conveying the distorted value judgement that crying is feminine behaviour and that it is inappropriate for a boy.
Encourage children to play with kids of the opposite sex
If your child mostly plays with kids of the same sex, he loses the opportunity to understand and become familiar with those of the opposite sex. This hampers the development of gender sensitivity. Encourage inclusive play and do not restrict your child on what kind of games or sport he should take up.
Treat your partner with respect and love
The way their parents treat each other has a deep impact on children. You may have heard this statement made by men quite often: “My wife does not work.” This negates all the work a homemaker does caring for the home and family.
Children who witness their mothers becoming victims of domestic violence or dowry harassment get a warped perception of the power equation between the two genders. Parents have to ensure that their children do not become either victims or perpetrators of gender violence. When they are old enough to understand, talk to them about sexism and the gender inequality that exists in society.
Teach children to embrace diversity
Teach you kids not to fear differences but instead accept others in a non-judgmental manner. Instill respect in your child for all genders (gender need not be binary). For instance, your child should never be tempted to bully an ‘effeminate’ child at school or at play.
Class, race, sexuality, gender and all other categories by which we categorize and dismiss each other need to be excavated from the inside.
- Dorothy Allison, American writer
Gender stereotypes affect self-image and self-esteem and limit job expectations and life choices. In families where women and men share leadership roles and mutual respect, children are raised to see all as equals – deserving of respect and equal opportunities. Make your family one of those.
In a nutshell
- Parents themselves have to be sensitive about gender roles and expectations in order to inculcate that quality in their children
- Children get influenced by what they read, watch or listen to
- Parents should allow children to choose activities and careers they like, irrespective of their gender
What you can do right away
- Let children choose their toys and get more gender-neutral toys for them
- Select books and stories which depict gender equality
- Don’t discriminate between your sons and daughter
About the author:
Written by Aruna Raghuram on 16 July 2019.
Aruna Raghuram is a journalist and has worked with various newspapers, writing and editing, for two decades. She has also worked for six years with a consumer rights NGO. At the time of writing this article, she was a consultant with ParentCircle.
About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD, on 7 November 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and currently heads the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).
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