I just sent my son to preschool… in pink panties. After trying very hard to convince him to wear one of the many pairs of undies we bought him, I eventually gave up.
It isn’t exactly unusual for him. He loves parading around in his big sister’s tutus and jelly sandals – in fact, he sometimes wears them to the park. And while his eccentric dress code does raise a few eyebrows, with some people going so far as to suggest we don’t “encourage” his penchant for pink, my husband and I have decided to simply let him be. After all, it’s high time we do away with gender stereotypes.
That doesn’t mean we’re rushing off to buy him sequins and skirts – although he would probably be delighted if we did! But it does mean we’ve abandoned the idea of forcing him into a T-shirt and shorts – an ensemble he actually quite likes (if said T-shirt comes in pink).
While other people have made me question my parenting style and consider me a little too laissez-faire in this department, I’ve always been taught to march to the beat of my own drum, so why wouldn’t I afford my child the same freedom? As Kate Hudson so eloquently put it in an interview: “I raise and will continue to raise my children, both my boys and girl, to feel free to be exactly who they want to be.” Ditto.
Of course, it’s not always that easy. Judgements from other parents aside, books and movies continue to reinforce these stereotypes with stories of brave knights and helpless princesses. Trying to parent within these narrow definitions of gender is challenging, but it’s even more limiting for the child’s development.
“Children use gender beliefs as a way to make sense of the world and what happens in it, and the problem with gender stereotypes is that they can restrict behaviour and beliefs about the self, creating a negative experience for some children,” says counselling psychologist Shelley Roe-Berning from Centapaeds. “If children are, however, allowed to explore and experiment, they can develop a richer understanding of what it means to be male or female.”
Not all parents are so progressive and often the idea of experimenting with behaviour associated with the opposite sex is mistakenly seen as experimenting with sexuality. “Gender is derived from our social and cultural beliefs about the roles that men and women follow, and our identity as a man or a woman. It is not about sexuality,” says Shelley.
She adds the importance of being aware of how we, as parents, role model our feelings about gender differences and gender roles. “If we are too rigid, it can place pressure on the child to conform,” she says. This is something my husband and I are trying to be cognisant of, despite our traditional upbringings.
For my husband, who is one of three boys and spent his formative years in boarding school, our son’s preference for playing with dolls and dancing on the table in his tutu is very foreign, but he is happy (not always) for him to do it. He’s having fun after all. And isn’t it our responsibility as parents to let our children enjoy their childhood as they see fit and not as dictated to them by fairy tales and films, or worse, our own insecurities about gender identity?
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I’m not suggesting we all adopt new-age parenting styles or venture too far out of our comfort zones, but I do think we need to be more fearless in allowing our kids to be kids.
“Boys playing with dolls and wearing dresses, or girls acting out boy roles are very healthy mechanisms of exploring what it’s like to be a boy or a girl,” says Shelley. “If they are allowed to explore and experiment, they can develop a richer understanding of what it means to be male or female and as the brain develops in complexity, their understanding becomes more nuanced and mature,” she explains.
But it’s not just about how we dress our children or the books we read to them, it’s in the language we use, too. Affirmations for our sons tend to come in the form of “my clever boy”, while our praise for our daughters leans more towards “my pretty princess”. I’m guilty of this myself. But if we don’t challenge this rhetoric, aren’t we complicit in further entrenching these antiquated notions of gender?
“It’s exceptionally important to be attuned to what we say to our children and how we say it, particularly the way we react when our children express emotion,” says Shelley. “The directive, for instance, that ‘boys don’t cry’ can have a profoundly negative effect on a child, especially a young boy who is more emotional and sensitive,” she explains.
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Of course, you can’t be prescriptive and insist there is just one right way to parent a child. It is, as Shelley says, a complex journey. But the more open-minded we can be, the better right? “I encourage moms and dads to allow their children to play and to explore freely, without fear and cultural biases about what it means to be male or female,” she says.
Fortunately, it seems the tide is turning with the arrival of books like Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo (Penguin Books Ltd), more forward-thinking role models in films and even gender-neutral clothing lines for kids (check out Celine Dion’s Celinununu range launched in November 2018).
Add to that the many celebrity moms like Kate Hudson who are unapologetically raising their kids as individuals and the message is clear: it’s time to abandon gender stereotypes and step into the 21st century.
Jessica is a writer and editor from Cape Town – and a mum of two toddlers.