There’s one Christmas that I’ll always remember. My mother’s contemporary 90’s living room of brass elephants and white leather turned into a sea of Pepto-Bismol Pink courtesy of Mattel. Between my new Barbie Fold and Fun House and a hot pink Porsche Cabriolet (with working headlights) parked outside of it, my sister and I couldn’t help but look at one another in unison and think, “Christmas bonus?” Maybe it was the good grades, maybe my parents planned early, but whatever it was we made out great that Christmas, me eventually falling asleep among pink taffeta and mini high heels and my sis somewhere geeked over the ringing of Sonic the Hedgehog grabbing gold rings.
At a certain point like any parent, my parents became aware of how drastically different my sister and I were. I was your typical girly-girl who got her kicks out of braiding Cabbage Patch hair and planning tea parties and my sister was more comfortable with a controller in her hand or a seated on a ten-speed. I guess you could say she was the son my father always wanted. But does it send a bad message when parents assume that boys want to play with Hot Wheels and girls prefer Littlest Pet Shoppe?
From an early age girls are taught that their role is the caregiver. Their aisle in Toys R’ Us is filled with baby dolls that cry, burp and need to be bathed waiting patiently for their seven-year old mothers to nurture them. Walk a little further down the aisle and you end up in a world of fashion, romance and family complete with Barbie Dream Bride waiting for Ken to pull up in his white Hummer. Where are their race cars and construction sets? There’s nothing wrong with shopping in the pink section for your daughter and sticking to the blue aisle for your son, the problem comes when you start discouraging your children from playing with toys that society hasn’t assigned to their gender.
Even with all of the tea sets in the world, my parents never limited my play time to cooking, cleaning while sitting with my legs crossed and being a “proper young lady”. They supported wherever my interests took me whether it was climbing trees, rollerblading or of course creative writing. So often I see parents flipping out when their little boy plays dress up in a blonde wig as they quickly reprimand, “Little boys don’t do that!” How many times have my students expressed that their teenage sons will have later curfews and more freedom than their adolescent daughters because “girls can get into more trouble”? Studies show that double standards and strictly defined gender roles do one of two things: increase a child’s curiosity for all of the things that are off limits to them or limit the things that they are willing to learn.
And what about the “gay” factor? Your three-year-old boy playing dress up in mommy’s heels has to indicate a future of rainbow flags and fashion shows, right? When children are young they are just beginning to explore the differences in both male and female biology and behavior. Stuffing his t-shirt full of tissue paper doesn’t mean your little man wants breasts, just that he’s curious about them. As a parent, your reaction is everything and the toys they choose don’t determine who they are attracted to. The bigger a deal you make out of it, the more dramatic the situation is for your child. Parents often worry about the way a child’s peers or other parents will respond to their children if they cross the dreaded gender line, but if other kids laugh at a boy who likes playing double-dutch that’s their problem not his. People can be as liberal or traditional as they choose to be, but unless your child’s behavior is destructive or harmful, what’s so dangerous about a boy who likes to play jump rope? By telling your son to stop crying, you could be stunting his ability to express emotion, possibly creating a struggle for any love interest he has in the future. Your big girl may not go for that degree in architecture or urban planning because as a little girl you discouraged her from bug collecting and building trees forts.
Think about the message you send your children when all your son has to open on Christmas morning are water guns and army men while your daughter is given a mini-spa and make up play set. The way to well-balanced children include involving positive examples of both genders in your child’s life, not focusing so much on gender and limiting how much media and marketing they’re exposed to. Empower your children to explore different behaviors and not define themselves based on gender roles of how society says boys and girls should be, but rather all of the great possibilities their parents believe they can be.
Do you believe there are certain things that boys and girls should just not do?
Toya Sharee is a program associate for a Philadelphia non-profit that focuses on parenting education and building healthy relationships between parents, children and co-parents. She also has a passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog BulletsandBlessings.