Elsa doll and Baymax toy

Setting the children free: parenting without stereotypes

When Rebecca Asher was researching her book Man Up, she found one message consistently came through loud and clear: the commonalities between boys and girls far outweigh the differences. She outlines for Let Toys Be Toys how the way we raise children and the gender stereotypes we bring to our parenting create and magnify any differences between the sexes.

rebecca-asher

I have never put much store by parenting manuals. Eight years into my career as a parent, I have turned to them on only a handful of occasions. Yet at the same time I have always been baffled by folksy advice to ‘rely on my maternal instinct’. I am not convinced that I have that instinct – maternal, parental, call it what you will. I love my children but I don’t believe that this love translates into always knowing exactly how best to meet their needs.

I have always been baffled by folksy advice to ‘rely on my maternal instinct’. I am not convinced that I have that instinct – maternal, parental, call it what you will.

Part of the joy – and challenge – of raising children is that they remain a mystery in many ways. Consequently my parenting successes, such as they are, have been largely down to trial and error or plain luck rather than great instinctive insight. In fact it is while blundering along the trial and error path that I have occasionally turned to manuals in desperation. But I have found that they generally feed my sense of inadequacy as a parent rather than assuage it.

Boy feeding doll

Kind permission of @UMAS1

I have also noticed since I began researching Man Up, my book on boys and masculinity, that the advice peddlers are adept at packaging their pearls of wisdom into manuals aimed separately at raising girls and boys. Just like toy manufacturers, these peddlers aim to double their money by colour-coding their wares.

Yet in reviewing the work of neuroscientists, psychologists and educationalists, one message consistently came through loud and clear: the commonalities between boys and girls far outweigh the differences and it is largely the way we raise children and the gender stereotypes we bring to our parenting that create and magnify such differences between the sexes rather than any ‘innate’ characteristics or aptitudes.

Not just a girl thing

The limitation this experience places on girls has been well documented, constraining everything from the toys they play with to the careers they consider. It is important to continue to push for change for girls. Yet we also need to recognise that comparable limitations apply to boys too. Just as we encourage the quiet, caring and decorative in girls, we encourage the physical, noisy and assertive in boys. Many of these qualities have much to be said for them, others are fine in moderation. It is their overriding association with one sex or the other that is problematic. Collectively we need better to understand the link between encouraging gendered behaviour in childhood and the difficulties it leads to in adulthood, from care being deemed women’s work and so undervalued and underpaid to male violence in its many forms.

It is important to continue to push for change for girls. Yet we also need to recognise that comparable limitations apply to boys too. Just as we encourage the quiet, caring and decorative in girls, we encourage the physical, noisy and assertive in boys.

‘Innocent socialisation’

In the past I flattered myself that I steered clear of inflicting such gendered assumptions on my children. However I also learnt during my research that we constantly interact with our children in a gendered way, even when we are not aware of it. This so called ‘innocent socialisation’ may come through in the slightest look or touch indicating approval or disapproval about toy choices, or the tone of our conversations, or what we choose to talk about.

we constantly interact with our children in a gendered way, even when we are not aware of it.

For instance, parents tend to assume that boys are more physically adept than girls; they punish them more harshly; they talk to them less than to daughters; they are certainly less likely to discuss emotions with boys – with the exception of anger, which they are more likely discuss with boys than girls; and they are also less likely to read to boys or to take them to the library.

words used in TV toy ads featuring boys. Most prominent: battle, control, power, adventure, blast, build, action, launch, rescue

I was struck by the number of boys and men I spoke to who said they regretted this gendered upbringing. Liam, a teenager I met in Cambridge, recalled his parents’ strong steers towards ‘boyish’ toys: ‘I think they were afraid of what my friends would say. They should have said, “So what?”’ Looking back on his own childhood, Ian, a father of two, commented: ‘It began to coalesce into a belief that I wasn’t much good at being male. Boys were meant to show physical prowess and social prowess, being able to be a bit insensitive, to not care.’

I was reminded of these comments when I saw the Let Toys Be Toys Twitter feed from this year’s Children’s Media Conference citing quotes from boys: ‘People expect boys to be strong and tough and to fight but that’s just not me’; ‘If I cry people will think I’m a wimp’. If we want boys, as well as girls, to be free to be who they want to be, to be liberated from gender stereotypes and to live a life in which they are kind to themselves and to other people then we need to resist falling into the ‘gender trap’ in our own parenting.

Sometimes it pays to listen

For all my wariness about parenting tips I did pick up some great advice along the way from other parents and professional experts I spoke to while writing my book. This advice includes:

Don’t go with the pink and blue flow

Even when it feels like an uphill struggle and that life would be easier for our children and ourselves if we fell into line, the rewards will be with worth it in the end, for everyone.

As Amy, the mother of two sons, told me: ‘My boys will be adults one day, they may have children of their own. And I want them to feel free to live their lives as they would wish and to have the same respect for women as they do for men. I believe that the values we are instilling in them will make a difference.’

Talk about gendered pressures

Children appreciate it when we acknowledge the pressures they face and it’s an opportunity to discuss with our children how best to negotiate them.

Judy Chu, a lecturer in the Human Biology faculty at Stanford University who carried out a study into boys’ socialisation when they enter primary school, gives sound and pragmatic advice on how parents can enable boys to remain true to themselves.

Model equality

One of the best ways we can encourage our own children to challenge gender stereotypes and keep their choices open is to do the same as a parent: showing children by example that men and women are equal and need not be confined to certain roles.

Dan, a father of two, told me: ‘My wife and I do things fifty/fifty. I earn significantly more but we both work the same hours and see it as hours not money. My parents, when I was growing up, had pink jobs and blue jobs – that’s what they would call them – down to who took out the bins. But we share all the chores in the house. It feels natural to do it that way. Maybe we fuss around our children too much these days, but I’m definitely emotionally closer to my children than my parents were.’

Use privilege for the greater good

The way things are, men will continue to hold the cards when it comes to money and power for some time to come. So fathers in senior positions at work have the opportunity to champion equality and create change. This means more than beneficently granting women’s flexible working requests. These manager men could work flexibly themselves, take all their paternity leave and use their shared parental leave entitlement, and encourage the other men in their team to do the same.

Further reading

If you are looking for further reading in this area, I highly recommend the books and articles below if you haven’t already come across them (in addition to my own, of course…). They provided me with great food for thought during my research:

When Boys Become Boys: Development, Relationships, and Masculinity. Judy Chu, New York University Press, 2014 – a fascinating study of the changing behaviour of boys as they come under peer pressure to conform to stereotype.

The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls. Emily Kane, New York University Press, 2012 – a warning to all parents on the stereotypes we perpetuate, often without even realising it.

Ringleaders and Sidekicks: How to help your son cope with classroom politics, bullying, girls and growing up. Rosalind Wiseman, Piatkus, 2013 – the one ‘how to’ book on this list: a snappy, insightful guide to supporting sons as they negotiate gendered peer pressure, written from a feminist perspective.

The Gender Police: A Diary. Ros Ball and James Millar, 2015 – a book of the collected tweets from the excellent @genderdiary, a mother and father duo raising a girl and a boy.

Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences. Cordelia Fine, Icon Books, 2012 – a witty and yet authoritative take on ‘neurosexism’.

Sex, Gender and Society. Professor Ann Oakley, Ashgate Publishing, 2015. This 1972 classic has recently been reissued. In the new foreword Oakley looks back on the understanding of sex and gender in the early seventies and notes: ‘The whole conceptual territory was a mess… Sex, Gender and Society arrived on a scene urgently demanding linguistic and conceptual clarity.’ Over four decades later, that need is once again urgent.

As well as Oakley’s work, this Beginner’s Guide from the academic Rebecca Reilly Cooper, is brilliant, and brilliantly clear, on definitions of sex and gender and why it’s vital to distinguish between the two.

The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. bell hooks, Washington Square Press, 2004 – Highly perceptive, compassionate and beautiful writing on why men need to change, for their own sake and that of others.

Free To Be (You and Me) – a wonderful collection of songs and stories made in collaboration with the Ms Foundation, and recorded in the 1970s by stars including Alan Alda and Dionne Warwick. It is an uplifting and entertaining way to show children the virtues of a life beyond gender. Watch this clip for a taster – and then buy the CD and play it to your children at every opportunity: you will soon find yourself singing along too!

Rebecca Asher is the author of Man Up: Boys, Men and Breaking the Male Rules and Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality.

Read our review of Man Up

 

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