I remember a couple years ago, my daughter Aria and I were watching TV and something came on with boys skateboarding. I asked her if she wanted to learn to skateboard. She looked at me as if I had just told her the sky was purple. Clearly puzzled, she said, “no skateboarding is for boys!” She said it in a way like I was playing a trick on her by even suggesting it.
I was disappointed, but not shocked. Disappointed that gender stereotypes are still so prominent in our society and pushed on children from a young age. But also not shocked because consumer marketing is driven to center heteronormative gender-specific products because today’s society had been founded on gender norms.
I told her that skateboarding wasn’t just for boys and before she could brush it off and move on to the next (as toddlers tend to do), I pulled up videos of young girls and women skateboarding on Youtube. “See! Anyone can skateboard, including girls. Anyone can do anything they want. Nothing is just for girls or boys.”
Looking back, I’m glad that this moment happened because it catapulted my conscious parenting in relation to gender discussions with my daughter.
Similarly to talking about race, there is no age too young to start these conversations. Children notice and make associations long before we think they do. In order to dispel these societal malfeasances, we parents have to educate our little ones. We need to allow them to see that they are able to do and explore anything they want in life, regardless of their gender and what society deems appropriate. But also so that they become inclusive, understanding, and accepting members of society who acknowledge gender fluidity and accept people for who they are.
To help, I spoke with Isobel Connors MSW, MEd (she/they), Adjunct Professor of Human Sexuality at Temple University and Ally Training Consultant for the Transgender Training Institute LLC. She offered guidance and insights to have conversations about gender with our kids and help avoid gender stereotyping.
1. Be mindful of how you speak to your kids
Something I hadn’t thought of is the compliments we give our children and the way we speak to them. Connors said it’s important to be conscious of how we speak about gender, directly and indirectly and posed the questions,“Are the compliments you give children gendered? Are you more often complimenting the appearance of your daughter than you are a son?”
Children are acutely aware of the language we use and the attributes we praise. Raising gender-expansive youth means shifting our language to reflect a wider range of possibilities for who they can be and what they can do.
2. Talk to your family about how you discuss gender in your household
It’s important to make sure the adults in your child’s life are privy to the way you address gender with your child. Making sure that they understand gender in your household is not the construct of gender norms we have all grown up with.
“Talk about your intentions to raise a child outside of gender stereotypes with other adults in your child’s life, including extended family, teachers, and caregivers,” said Connors. “While you can’t necessarily control what others say to your child, you can equip them with resources and information about your decision and ask that they be mindful of their language and behavior around your child.”
3. Combat gendered marketing
Be mindful of the products you’re buying for your child and the way you speak to them. Only buying our daughters pink clothing (while adorable) or enrolling them in activities thought to be feminine, starts gender stereotyping early. Try to diversify everything and see what they’re drawn to. Children are beyond preceptive. Buy gender-fluid toys. Shop the boys and girls section of stores. Look out for gender stereotyping in what they’re watching.
My daughter once curiously asked, “can boys do ballet?” Of course they can, I responded. But if she hadn’t inquired, I would have thought a 2 year old was too young to address the topic of gender. But the world pushes these gendered ideas on children out of the womb.
4. Prepare your child to respond to gender policing
Gender policing refers to the ways in which other people (or institutions) critique or punish those who do not adhere to traditional gender norms.
“Take time to talk with your child about some of the things they might hear outside of your home and how they can respond to such situations,” said Connors. “For instance, if someone says, ‘why are your nails painted, nail polish is for girls!’ your child could respond, ‘Nail polish is for anyone who likes to paint their nails! What do you like to do?’ You can also talk to them about seeking support if someone is bullying them.”
5. Have resources for you and your child about gender
Dismantling gender stereotypes is about having more options and representation. If you have the privilege to afford different types of toys (inclusive dolls, sports objects, clothing for them and their dolls, etc.), give your children a variety of options.
I recently purchased a book for my daughter I’d recommend called, Nailed It by Brianna Rae Johns. It tells the story of a young boy who loves to wear nail polish, but none of his friends agree with his expression. With everyone outside of his home telling him wearing nail polish wasn’t okay, until a teacher tells him whatever decisions he makes for himself are right for him, and he finds confidence in his choices. These are stories we need our children to read.
Connors said, “Oftentimes folks who aren’t educated on gender development worry that children are not ready to have discussions about gender at such a young age.” And recommended this discussion guide to help parents talk to their kids about gender at various ages. “This resource offers tools as well as an explanation of the research on gender identity development, emphasizing that children develop a sense of their own gender around 3-4 years old.”
We are our children’s keepers and it is our responsibility to support them but to also raise them to support and accept others for who they are, not their gender.