Raising children without gender stereotypes

By Dr Finn Mackay, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of the West of England

You can now download, display and consult your very own guide to raising children without gender stereotypes, all in an A3 poster! The 20 tips introduced on the poster are a summary of a much longer article and they will hopefully be useful, practical, informative and probably provocative, for parents and educators alike. The tips are only a beginning, and they are intended to start reflection and discussion: everyone could probably add their own to the list.

What?

Firstly, let’s start at the beginning, what sort of stereotypes are we talking about? Anyone with children in their lives, perhaps especially young children, cannot have failed to notice gender stereotyping: in children’s clothes; in children’s toys; in leisure activities aimed at children; in children’s programmes on TV… basically, everywhere.

Gender stereotyping is the promotion of the idea that certain colours, activities and roles are naturally suited to human beings on the basis of sex. Males are supposed to be masculine and like masculine things; females are supposed to be feminine and like feminine things. Over time, and in different places in the world, what is considered appropriately masculine and feminine changes, though some themes remain familiar – mainly the active/passive divide. Physical, active and aggressive things are branded masculine; while passive, pretty things are branded feminine.

Babygros for newborn boys are emblazoned with diggers, rockets and cars, while clothes for baby girls are an endless array of pink, pastel and fluffy bunnies. In children’s books we read to our children that the adventurous ones are all boys, be they human, monster or animal. Meanwhile, the girl ones have big eyelashes, bows in their hair and tiny waists, be they human, monster or animal – though there are fewer girl characters full stop.

Toys in stores are often separated too, into boy and girl aisles, with guns and trucks for boys and dolls and beauty sets for girls. For older children, beginning from toddler age, the messages on clothing get even more stark; girls are expected to go around with ‘princess’, ‘supermodel in training’ or ‘cute’ written on them, while boys wear tops that say ‘genius’ or ‘here comes trouble’. But so what?! Why does it matter?

Why?

Stereotyping our children, from before birth, is to constrain them in a set of rules and expectations which shape the path they will take in their future life, opening up some options, and closing down others. It is not an exaggeration to say that unequal wages for women or mental illness in men is, in no small part, connected to gender stereotyping.

The toys, clothes and the attitudes we instil in boys teach boys that men are meant to be tough at all costs, even when those costs are to themselves or the loved ones around them. The toys, clothes and the attitudes we instil in girls teach girls that women are meant to be caring and beautiful, that how they look is more important than what they do and that their natural place is in the home anyway.

As parents, relatives or educators, we have to acknowledge that too often our society sends toxic messages, and sometimes, so do we. We do it every time we tell a boy to be brave and not to cry; every time we tell a girl she’s pretty. How many boys would have been famous ballet dancers or artists, how many would have grown up to be terrific teachers or nurses, if they hadn’t been set on a blue path while they were still in the womb? How many girls would have been scientists or engineers, how many would have grown up to be marvellous mechanics or CEOs, if they hadn’t been set on a pink path while they were still in the womb? 

We teach children the rules, the very same rules that have limited many of us, and constrained our dreams. Let’s not constrain our children in the same way, let’s free them to be the people they will be, rather than walking stereotypes; let’s change the rules.

How?

The 20 tips poster from Let Toys Be Toys contains lots of ideas for unstereotyping children. There is no reason to divide up our children by sex alone, especially when it comes to toys or colours; children should be free to enjoy and experiment with all toys, colours and activities. This is not a call to treat girls ‘like boys’ or to treat boys ‘like girls’, it is a call to let all children be people before stereotypes.

So, don’t refer constantly to little children as boys or girls, there’s a lot more to them than that. We wouldn’t separate out our children by whether they are left or right handed, and call after them in playgrounds: “good climbing left-handers” or “right-handers get down from there or you’ll rip your dress”. Let children wear clothes suitable for children, not stereotypes: that means clothes that are comfortable, fun and flexible.

Boys have all their lives to wear black and grey, girls have all their lives to be shamed and scrutinised because what they are wearing is either not enough or too much; don’t start this earlier than it has to. Tell your girls to be adventurous, let them climb trees without telling them to be careful at every branch. Buy trucks and bricks for your girls because they might be architects one day, or racing drivers. Hug your boys, comfort them when they are upset, tell them they are beautiful. Buy dolls for your boys because they might be fathers or carers one day, or nursery teachers. When we look at the problems we have in the world, which will be imposed on our children, it is clear we all, as communities, need to raise change-makers, peace-makers and souls with gentle hearts and strong minds. The old rules do not apply.

Dr Finn Mackay is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of the West of England, and the author of ‘Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement’ published by Palgrave.

Download her booklet on raising children free of gender stereotyping

Download an A4 version of the poster

Download an A3 version of the poster

Read more about how you can challenge gender stereotypes in the early years

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