Friday Food for Thought: Stereotypes

margaret mead quote children must be taught how to think

When Emerson was a baby, we bought predominately gender neutral clothing, gear, and toys. For every princess doll she received as a gift, we balanced it with Duplos or a train set; for every tea set a new drawing pad and crayons. We tried to make compliments more about her as a person than her exterior, and watched what we said to not create gender stereotypes.

Emerson is almost five and still a girly girl. Recently she asked us to donate all her dinosaurs and trucks and even Daddy and Brother dolls for her doll house to “little boys without toys,” refuses to wear her brown pants, and often says something is “for boys” or “for girls.” She doesn’t get this from us, she doesn’t get this from our extended family, our community, and we limit television with commercials so it’s not like it’s being hammered into her head from there.

Emerson is at an age where she is very curious, and very aware.  She realizes that there is a difference between herself and her male friends, between my adult body and her child one, between me and Daddy.  She asks questions, and we provide her with honest answers as simply as we can so she can understand.  We explain how being a boy or a girl or our different bodies don't determine what we can and can't do or like.  Emerson doesn’t believe that because she is a girl she can’t be strong or smart or a leader or brave. But at this age she finds comfort in surrounding herself in pink, reading about fairies and mermaids and princesses, and being as feminine as she knows how to be.

And we are not stopping her. We believe a female can be whatever she wants to be, and if she wishes to wear all pink, don tutus and crowns for a trip to the grocery store, and prefer a play kitchen over a train set who are we to judge? Emerson is not an adult, but she is old enough to know what she likes, to make choices, to see options and weigh them. And if she is making this decision without external pressures, we respect it.  We also believe that who she is at this age isn't necessarily who she will be in five years… or even five weeks.

Where is this coming from, Alison? Well, it seems in an attempt to stop gender stereotypes, some have gone in the complete opposite direction. Along with one-upping on the playground or Facebook with whose child eats a more nutritious/organic/varied diet and who potty trained/communicated elimination first, there's now the competition of whose child is the most immune to stereotypical gender roles. How about we stop basing our self-worth on how impressive our little children are to casual acquaintances? No matter the gender, some kids just really like fairy tales and the color pink. And there’s many a successful, powerful, and confident woman who loved herself baby dolls and play kitchens when she was little. Let kids be individuals and find themselves, it’s the best thing we can teach our children, no matter their gender.

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  1. December 21, 2013 / 10:06 pm

    Allie, this post has been sitting in my Feedly since you first wrote it, and I’ve read it countless times. I 100% completely agree with you. I have told you this before, but I really admire the way you and Karl are raising Emerson. My husband and I are planning to adopt one child, a daughter, and we want to raise her so that she does not succumb to gender stereotypes. We also know full well that she will have her own preferences and opinions as she grows, and that is important. I love that you mentioned the competition and “one upping” that goes on between parents, and I really appreciate your attitude in addressing this. It is so important to talk about as parents (or, in my case, as an educator of children and a future parent) so that we all understand the effects of gender stereotyping and one upping!

  2. November 24, 2013 / 7:10 pm

    Before I could even have a say in the matter, my parents pierced my ears at 3. I remember squirming away in discomfort, whenever my mother would tug on my eyes to apply eyeliner. She would also try & chase me to wear lipstick if we were going somewhere ‘fancy’. If that’s not forcing a girl to fit into certain gender norms, then I don’t know what is, lol. In my teenage years however, I went through an ’emo’ phase & therefore started wearing eyeliner- my mother would mercilessly tease me about how I would never do that as a child.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that, on top of remembering our children are their own people (with their own interests/ likes etc), we also need to remember that our/ their identities (including gender identities) are fluid, & therefore are capable of changing- even from day to day! I mean, it still makes me laugh when my mother gets angry if I don’t wish to slather my face in foundation every time we go to a wedding (because my skin needs to breathe sometimes) or when I don’t wear heels to every special event (because I don’t feel up to dealing with the foot pain on that particular day) =P

    Because of the way my parents would pressure me as a kid, I would be pretty stereotypically ‘girly’ in some aspects (not wanting to play very rough or tumble games), but also ‘boyish’ in others (playing games about spaceships, video games etc). Some of it was rebellion against my parents’ controlling ways, but some of it was also just naturally me.

    I could write an entire book about how my parents stifled my self-expression & my sexuality (which is linked to gender), but I think that if I just tell you that I come from an incredibly conservative (& religious) South Asian family, you can figure out the rest 😉

  3. November 24, 2013 / 10:15 am

    Absolutely. Even with the influence of a big brother, who made sure her earliest obsessions were Avengers and Spider-Man, my daughter (now 5) is a girly girl who loves princesses and pink and purple and sparkly things and ponies and puppies. But she also loves drawing and running and jumping and climbing trees and will indulge her brother in a light-saber fight every now and then.

    I find it interesting that far fewer parents (IMO) are busy trying to make sure their toddler sons like princesses just as much as they like superheroes. (And I admit that the Disney Princess marketing machine rankles with me a lot more than the Avengers or Star Wars ones. I don’t really know why that should be.)

  4. November 23, 2013 / 7:42 pm

    This is a really great post. My boys play with all kinds of toys, and one of my little guys is really into all things Pink Owl. He also likes to wear nail polish and try out my lipstick, too. I think it’s totally fine, but I struggle with how to prepare him for the reactions of other children who might not be so accepting.

  5. November 22, 2013 / 7:37 pm

    Good points there. Also, I think that strongly gendered thing around age five is a developmental stage. They have to go from not knowing about gender as toddlers to being fully into it as young children to hopefully relaxing a bit as they get older and work out the subtleties.

  6. Ginger
    November 22, 2013 / 5:48 pm

    It seems to me that 3-6 is a time of maximum girlishness for some girls.
    Once she goes to school her tastes will probably shift.

    I’d just enjoy it.

    I had boys so our lives were one fireman’s hat after another.

  7. Erica
    November 22, 2013 / 5:03 pm

    1) Amen to everything! Totally agree.
    2) Both my girls were very “girly” for a long time. They loved princesses and fairy dress-up, and their favorite colors were pink and purple. Now, my oldest (9) won’t wear a dress or skirt and likes dark solids and neutrals for clothes. My other daughter will still wear skirts and dresses, but no pink and purple. Sometimes it’s hard to go with the flow, but ultimately we didn’t say much about it and just let them grow into and experiment with their preferences. Even if they stayed in the ultra-girl phase that would have been fine too.

  8. A.S.
    November 22, 2013 / 4:31 pm

    Just jumping in to say Emerson is the sweetest, cutest, amazingest little person I have encountered in a long time.

    That is all. 🙂

  9. November 22, 2013 / 4:10 pm

    I LOATHE pink, I always have. I was a pretty serious tomboy in childhood and I’ve never outgrown it. My rule for my (currently hypothetical) baby girl is a simple one – For as long as I am choosing her clothing, she’ll never wear pink. Not because I think there’s anything particularly terrible about the color, I just don’t like it, and I don’t like ruffles or impractically feminine outfits for children who will clearly want to play or other things like that. But the moment she’s old enough to start pointing at an outfit she wants to wear, and it’s pink or ruffle-y or whatever, okay. We’ll start dressing her in those, when she is old enough to start choosing her own clothes if not yet quite old enough to put them on herself.
    I’d like to say I would be able ot dress my girl in pink on my own on occasion, but… it’s not gonna happen.
    In short, I agree – there’s nothing wrong with being feminine, and I don’t want my little girl to think it’s wrong, although I know for sure she’s going to be aware that her Mama doesn’t like very many traditionally ‘girly’ things.

  10. crtfly
    November 22, 2013 / 4:01 pm

    She is who she is. Thank you and her Dad for allowing her own personality to emerge. She is very fortunate.

  11. bubu
    November 22, 2013 / 3:44 pm

    You Rock! Love love love this.

  12. RTG
    November 22, 2013 / 1:48 pm

    And while we’re at it, let’s not pretend that princesses are the opposite of legos. Girly girls can be engineers and scientists too. The sooner we let go of the notion that girls who like princesses aren’t serious about the hard stuff like math, the faster these fields will achieve better gender balance.

  13. November 22, 2013 / 1:37 pm

    I grew up around a lot of boys. I was always more of a tomboy than a girl, but I STILL loved pink, purple, unicorns, fairies and princesses. I don’t think you can really force a child to be one way or another, whether it is to make a girl act like a girl, or a girl act more like a boy.

    They’re just doing what comes naturally.

  14. Jennifer Brown
    November 22, 2013 / 1:30 pm

    I absolutely agree. The problems come when a child is pressured, and those pressures come from EVERYWHERE in society, whether we like it or not, whether we limit it or not. But we can do the best we can. My daughter also loves pink (and tons of other colors.) My son loves trucks and Legos (and sleeps with a doll.) So what? The main point is to bring them up as empathetic, kind people who respect others as human beings with knowledge, expertise, and relationships to offer, whatever their gender. I believe I could dress both my children in sparkly tutus, or both of them in camouflage, and still do that.

    Just a recommendation: Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine (she is a neuroscientist) debunks a lot of the “studies” out there that supposedly show that male and female brains work so differently. It’s a wonderful, readable book that gets to the heart of some of the “scientific sexism” out there.

  15. anya
    November 22, 2013 / 12:30 pm

    Yes, this is so true. I really don’t remember being pressured into gender types, until 10 or so years old. As a kid i did not like anything chocolate but loved apple pies. I loved playing with cars and cubes and lego’s ( well, i grew up an engineer, so that tells) , but also i remember a pretty velvet dress and patent leather shoes ( black with elephant faces). I distinctly remember waiting the bus with my mum to go and visit my dad in hospital. I was wearing the velvet dress and the patent shoes. and my mom was “done up” too , and i told her ” mom, we’re so elegant, we should get a cab” . And we did!
    I also remember when my dad went with me and bought me the first pair of heels ( for junior prom . i was EXCITED !) So yeah, l admire you for letting your girl be who she wants to be.

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