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When going clothing shopping for your children, remember to give them a choice. Don’t dictate, but rather let them select their own outfits.

If you think your daughters should only wear pink outfits decorated with kittens, rainbows and unicorns and little boys should only wear blue, then you need to ask if you have been programmed to gender stereotype by the marketers of children’s clothing.

Gender stereotyping

This type of gender stereotyping goes back decades, but it hasn’t always been the case. In the 1800s, both boys and girls wore white dresses until the age of six or seven, when they also had their first haircut. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that clothing in pastel colours, in particular pink and blue, made an entrance, but they were not gender signifiers until just before World War 1, when it was decided that pink – the stronger colour – was for boys clothing, and blue – considered to be more dainty – was prettier for girls clothing. Today’s colour dictate wasn’t established until the 1940s when manufacturers and retailers interpreted and responded to consumers’ preferences. By the ‘80s it became big business when the pink-blue divide stretched to nappies, linen, décor and toys.

According to American historian and author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys From The Girls in America, Jo Paoletti, children only become aware of their gender between the ages of three and four, and do not realise it’s permanent until age six or seven. So how much of this gender stereotyping is being forced on them well before they even understand it? Clinical psychologist and play therapist Dr Jana Lazarus  says: “Children are like sponges and will pick up on the expectations and attitudes of their significant others. That’s why it is important to give children the space in which to be themselves. If you want to, dress your little girls in pink when they are babies, but honour their personal preferences as they start voicing them. Forcing a particular look on your child can indeed make them feel that ‘blue for boys’ is some kind of life rule. And yes, this is similar to other preconceived ideas like housework is for girls, and boys don’t cry.”

According to retailers, trends in children’s clothing include wearing the same styles as mom and dad, creating a demand for smaller sized versions of what adults are wearing. Another is the activewear trend, which has seen “athleisure” grow in popularity among parents, and children have followed suit, enjoying the comfort and functionality of the clothing.

what about costumes and dress-up?

So amid all these fashion decisions, is there still room for good old-fashioned superhero costumes, princess crowns and capes? Pre-primary teachers believe it’s essential for children  to dress up. “The world of dress up plays a huge role in fantasy and imaginative play, which are vital for a child’s development. To put on a crown and fairy costume or a superhero outfit provides children with the opportunity to step out of what they are comfortable with, gain confidence and become whatever they want to be, all the while learning valuable skills such as problem-solving, social skills and working together,” they say/

Cape Town psychologist Saskia Wolfaardt agrees. “For younger children, fantasy is an important part of getting to know the world, and they may play out some of these fantasies through dressing up. They are playing – not choosing an identity. It is also important for children to feel they can differ from you – that even though pink is your favourite colour, green can be theirs. This helps them to find their own place in the world with confidence.”

Read more about fantasy play and how it benefits children.

What to wear to school?

  • You can be sure your child will come home covered in glitter, glue, paint or mud so don’t let them wear any fancy clothing. Buy long-lasting clothes that can handle being scrubbed and soaked to get rid of stains.
  • Elastic waistbands, while not trendy, are best for young children who are still learning to go to the toilet on their own.
  • Choose an appropriate fit – clothes that too big or too small will not be comfortable and will get in the way of their concentration.
  • Proper shoes – flip-flops and strappy sandals are cute, but can cause children to trip while running and playing.