Is it a Girl Thing?

Raising children without instilling gender stereotypes
By Anél Lewis

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Girls wear pink and boys play with trucks. Really? Or do we as parents inadvertently impose these gender stereotypes on our children? I confronted this uncomfortable notion recently when Erin decided to wear Conor’s clothes for the day. Conor’s clothing cupboard is at just the right height for her to be able to “window shop”. She usually just dumps his stuff on the floor, but on this occasion she announced that she wanted to wear his shirt and jeans. I decided not to make a big deal of this, and duly dressed her in her brother’s gear. Craig was less enthusiastic about her clothing choice. He tried to encourage her to put on a dress instead, but she was having none of it.
 
I didn’t think it bothered me much, until we got to the market and I suddenly became acutely aware of all the little girls dressed beautifully in skirts or dresses. Erin is also not a fan of hair accessories, so when dressed in her brother’s khakis and denim, she looked just like a boy. And when she started playing with another little girl, attired in the de rigueur pink, I found myself explaining to the mother that Erin was in fact a girl, and that she was just going through a phase.
 
But why should it matter so much what Erin is wearing? Surely it’s limiting to presume that only boys can wear blue and that girls can never wear functional shorts and neutral colours? I am starting to realise how insidiously these stereotypes creep into the way we speak and act. We recently bought Conor a toy train to play with, and Erin a doll. Of course, she was more interested in the locomotive and insisted on getting one too.
 
This being said, it has been fascinating to observe how differently brother and sister play. Erin naturally gravitates towards a more nurturing role. She talks to her ponies and will cook up imaginary dishes in her wooden oven, while Conor is fascinated with wheels and other moving parts that make a noise. In an article on gender norms, Australian family psychologist Ian Wallace explains that this is partly because the Y chromosome kicks in at about the eighth week in utero for boys and this causes them to be “wired” differently to girls. They need more physical activity to learn, for example, and will therefore engage in rougher, action-driven play. But despite their different wiring, parents should still be cautious about unconsciously imposing gender labels. Think twice before referring to your son as “my big boy”, but your daughter as your “little girl” as you lead her towards the dolls in the toy shop. Let them tackle similar activities and expose them to the same experiences.
 
Erin’s “cross-dressing” exercise was, say the experts, a normal and healthy exploration of her free will. She does not have any gender biases yet, and she is not constrained by any stereotypes. I just hope we can keep this in mind should Conor show an interest in wearing her princess pyjamas.

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