Is what we think of as “for boys” or “for girls” written in stone? Some childhood development experts argue that children learn these stereotypes from grownups, and that it starts at a very young age.
Take gender-specific toys: Toys directed at boys tend to have more to do with visual spatial skills and active/physical play, whereas toys directed at girls are more focused on language arts and social skills. Children can take cues from those focuses, form their own gender stereotypes, and grow up thinking that certain skills are reserved for boys, while certain skills are just for girls. This can limit children’s perceptions of what they’re good at, what they’re capable of, or even what is possible for them.
But kids don’t necessarily have to live by those strict stereotypes—just ask Riley:
As parents and caregivers, you can help prevent kids from forming and internalizing some of these gender stereotypes. Here’s how.
Think beyond two groups.
It takes a little thought and practice, but avoid reinforcing the gender binary—the idea that there are only two distinct and opposite genders, masculine and feminine. Not everyone fits into one of those categories.
Instead, try to think about gender identity as a spectrum with characteristics that intersect and overlap. Remember that there isn’t one way to be “male,” one way to be “female”—there’s a wide range of ways to express gender.
Making assumptions about gender is something we’ve been taught to do since birth, so it can be tricky to stop. However, gender isn’t always cut and dry—take the recent uproar about Garfield’s gender identity.
Instead of making your own assumptions, try not to label a child’s stuffed animal or toy a particular gender—let the child do that and support their decision. Additionally, if children are playing together, avoid gendered romantic labels like “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.”
Create a new greeting.
One way to resist the gender binary and avoid assumptions is to avoid gender in a greeting.
For example, when you greet a group of children, instead of saying, “Hi boys and girls,” which reinforces the gender binary, try, “Hi friends,” or address a group of children based on what they’re doing: “Hi artists/climbers/explorers,” etc.
Don’t let gender make the rules.
Children enjoy and benefit from all kinds of imaginative and creative play—regardless of gender. When hosting playdates and parties, don’t let gender determine the activity.
Instead, offer art, active play, dress up, superhero play, dance, etc. to all children, regardless of the gender of your guests. Playing dress up and playing superhero have much in common, and all children can benefit from (and enjoy) many different ways to play.
Ignore blue and pink.
There are an awful lot of ways that stores and manufacturers gender the toys they make—so much so that it can be obvious which store aisles are “for boys” and which are “for girls.” But like Riley asks in the video above, who makes those rules anyway?
Ignore those rules and, when purchasing gifts for your kids, relatives, or friends, don’t limit yourself to toys labeled “boys” or “girls.” All children deserve (and want) the opportunity to explore a variety of interests—regardless of gender.
Read more about how Chicago Children’s Museum tries to remove gender stereotypes from our exhibits and why.