I Am A Girl, Hear Me Roar

Pink, girls, dolls, bows.  Blue, boys, trucks, dinosoars.  Gendered stereotypes are all around us.  How do you break these gendered characteristics?


As one mom writes:

"We have a smart, strong, sweet, independent 3 year old girl.  She has an equally smart, strong, sweet, independent older brother.  At a very young age, our daughter began making statements like, these [pink] legos are for girls and these [blue] legos are for boys, when noting the different lego packages on the store shelf.  She recently said that she can't play baseball or play the same instrument her brother plays because she's a girl.  We don't know where she is picking up such ideas.  It certainly isn't from us or our son, and her TV diet is limited to shows like Super Why, Team Umizumi and Wordgirl, all of which have strong female characters.  She is too young to participate in the same activities her brother does (we've asked coaches, teachers, who won't take someone as young as 3), so perhaps she feels that because she's not doing the same thing her brother is, it must be because she's a girl.  We tell her girls can do everything boys can, and when she's just a bit older, she too can be in the same classes and play the same instruments.  We don't buy her "girl" toys; if anything, we encourage her use of her brother's trains, dinosaurs and other toys.  

I would love to hear from others who have experienced this and how they deal with it.  Recommendations for age-appropriate books (eg, books on women leaders, artists, inventors, etc that we can read to her) and other resources (museum exhibits, resources for parents, etc.) would be greatly appreciated."


PSP Board Member and parenting extraordinaire Dale Rosenburg responds:


I think this is so common an experience as to be practically ubiquitous and the less common wrinkle is that you are concerned about it.  Some of our members are having the same thing happen to them and just think it shows that there's an innate difference between boys and girls, which of course it doesn't (as proof of that - "pink" as a girl's color is very specific to this time and place).  Lots of others have the same concerns you do.  And still others work with preschool age kids professionally and are dealing with this kind of rigidity in gender role expectations every day.  I think if you post about your daughter's gender role views you'll get lots of different ideas about why this happens and what to do about it and you'll also feel less like it's something that you speaking openly could be a problem for her later.

This is an age when this kind of thing happens so much, because 3-5 is a time of figuring out categories and one major way our society categorizes people is by gender roles.  There's lots of research that shows that we bombard kids with sex role restrictions from the day they're born without realizing we're doing it.   When asked to describe a newborn, if told the baby is a girl people describe her as pretty, pay attention to her hair and eyelashes, etc.  If told it's a boy they say he looks so strong etc.  And it's the same baby.  People hold infants differently if told they are boys or girls.  You can't walk down the street without encountering sex role stereotypes and gender conformity pressure.  The pressure in society to conform, the assumption of female role and gender role, is so pervasive that we don't even notice it a lot of the time.

There's no way - try as we might - we can avoid having our kids be influenced by the messages about gender that are everywhere. Those lego boxes have girls' pictures on the "girl" ones and boys' pictures on the "boy" ones.  If she plays with other kids she's hearing their societally induced views of gender.  Those TV programs may have strong female characters, but (although they're way past my time and I know nothing about them) I bet they have subtle gender role enforcement, because pretty much everything in our society does.  And if they are on commercial tv, the commercials sure do.

I've known preschoolers with mothers who are doctors insist that boys are doctors and girls are nurses.  A friend of mine who was a SAH dad had a daughter who identified all the parents taking their kids to school as "mom" in Spot Goes to School (a children's book in which all the children at school are talking animals and there's no indication of gender in the parents).  I've seen girls who love rough-and-tumble play suddenly insist on wearing skirts and dresses to preschool and then not doing the climbing they used to love.  Talk to a preschool teacher and you'll hear lots more stories. 

So here are some of my thoughts on what to do:

- Keep challenging the idea that girls can only do some things.  She needs that challenge - that's how she's going to learn that there's a more complex picture about gender than what she's getting from other kids and society at large.  It will take time for her to develop a more subtle and complex idea of what gender means but she needs to hear it to learn it.

- Encourage mixed gender play.  Have boys and girls over for play dates - both for her and her brother.

- Don't just give either of your kids stereotypically boys' toys.  Or other people's kids when you're giving gifts.  All kids need to build and all need to nurture.  Provide dolls for boys and girls; teach both to cook; teach both to build and grow and discover the world.

- Comment on sexism as you see it.  "Isn't that silly that they have a boy on that package?  As if girls don't like to build, too."  "This looks like a great present for Danny for you to take to his birthday party.  I wish they didn't have just girls on the box - boys like to pretend cook."

- If she's in preschool, ask what the school is doing to address these issues.

- Choose your battles and allow for compromise.  Kids do need to start making choices of their own at this age.  With my girls, I let them wear "girly" clothes to school but not clothes that impeded play and the skirts really made them too self conscious to play.  So we did skirts with leggings underneath or frilly tops and pants.

- Don't fall into the trap of praising all traditionally male activities and denigrating traditionally female ones to get her out of this.  That only reinforces the idea that boys are superior.

- When she does start sports, look for a team where the coach's kid is a girl.  Those teams will have more girls on them and the girls will play more.  

- There are lots of science related activities around for kids so go for them.  Zoo preschool classes are amazing and they have them at all the zoos and the aquarium.  I did all of them at least twice, mostly three times with all my kids and they are fun and engaging and there's always a behind-the-scenes animal encounter.  There's Carmelo the Science Fellow.  There's classes at AMNH. 

- Do practical math at home to encourage interest in math.  There are so many opportunities from cooking to timing bus trips to estimating quantities.

- Recognize that there's no quick fix to this.  Be prepared to engage your kids in discussion on gender issues for a long, long time.

So those are my off the top of my head tips.  But I'd really encourage you to post to the list and get lots of people's ideas.  If this feels too exposed as you wrote it, you could always make it more general (i.e. "Anyone have thoughts on how to challenge assumptions among children that girls can't engage in certain kinds of play because they're only for boys?").  But I really think there will be no down side to your daughter in the future if you post it as is.


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