Every parent wants their child to feel loved, wanted and valued. Parents recognize the import role these three things play in their child’s emotional development. Little do they know that the gender roles that they are teaching their kids may very well be undermining all of their hard work. Lets take a quick look at some basic information regarding gender roles.
For the majority of gender roles there is a can and can not group. That is, the gender role says women can, men cant or vise versa. Depending on what the gender role is outlining there is generally a certain value put on the gender role. For example, men are physically strong, women are physically weak. In this instance being strong is highly valued in society, if you are physically weak there are numerous things that you are restricted from doing. Being weak also says something about your value as a person, at least in that area.
Now imagine that you are the parent of a 2 year old twins a boy, and a girl. He picks up a big rock while playing outside and you comment on what a big strong boy he is. His sister picks up the same rock and looks to you for praise and compliment mimicking her brother and instead receives a be careful warning because she might get hurt. This child has just learned two valuable lessons, one, she is too weak to do thing that her brother can, more damaging is the second, more subtle lesson which says, because you aren’t strong enough to pick up the rock you don’t deserve my love and praise. You are bad because you are weak, and you are weak because you are female, and that is something you can’t change about yourself. Are you beginning to see how something as subtle as what happened in this play interaction can send a strong (often subconcious) message to your children?
You might be thinking that the given example is a little extreme, or that you would never dream of telling your little girl that. Keep in mind that I am trying to give a basic example to make a point. There are of course thousands of other instances in which the interaction is much more subtle, and often hidden to both the parent and child. Perhaps your house is gendered in a relatively healthy manner, maybe your thinking “my daughter takes out the trash and my son knows how to vacuum.” I encourage you to start thinking more abstractly, how do you react to your son when he does poorly in school as opposed to your daughter. What about when one of your children is struggling with friends? Do you ever catch yourself thinking ‘that’s just how boys/girls are.’ Perhaps your sons friends can have mean streaks now and then you dismiss it saying that’s just how boys are I’m sure they didn’t mean it, give your son a hug and move on. A week later your daughter is taunted at school, in response to her crying you console her and the both of you go get some ice cream and talk about what happened and how they made her feel. Your gender role stereotypes tell you that your son is ‘tough’ ‘boys don’t cry’ whatever wording you want to put it into your son was looking to you for support and got none. In this instance you can see how the boy is getting a strong message that says, his emotions aren’t important, he should just ignore them in order to seem ‘tough’ and try to move on by forgetting the hurt. The boys feelings do have worth, just as much worth as the girls, one experience at a time this boy will become distant from his own emotions and eventually experience a strong emotional disconnect.
As parents we have to begin to open our eyes to what gender roles are teaching our kids. While we cant change the gender roles that are pushed on our children by society we can help them adjust in a healthy way by providing a home environment that is flexible and open. Allow your son to cry, and your daughter to play in mud. Encourage your spouse to help you identify situations in which you are being biased towards your children based on gender, do the same for your spouse. For younger children it can be very helpful to start journaling things such as school disturbances (problems with friends, school performance, teacher calls) as well as the discipline and rewards that are given in your home. Many parents will find that they are harder on their male children than their female children in certain areas, and vice versa. Always take a minute to think about what you are saying to your children, and explore the possible interpretations that they may make. Are intentions as parents are generally good, but no matter how good of a parent you are you can never control how your children interpret things. Lastly, stay motivated by reminding yourself that helping your children develop a healthy relationship with their gender role in society, and encouraging them to challenge it when necessary will provide them with a lasting self worth, a self worth built on who they are rather than, who they should be.