Children begin to identify basic gender differences by the age of three, informs Ariana Abadian Heifetz, socio-emotional learning curriculum designer & facilitator, Heritage Xperiential Learning School. This should not come as a surprise since they are made to abide by a specific gender performance from a young age. So, when a boy wants to dress up in a girl’s clothes or the girl herself does not conform to the standards of femininity, they are scolded and criticised without really understanding their ‘mistake’. This can lead to further confusion about their true identity, manifesting in the form of developmental problems.
With people worldwide coming forward to assert gender diversity, the need of the hour is to sensitise parents and children alike about the same. Express Parenting took the opportunity to speak to Ariana, who educates kids and adults on gender issues, to know more about navigating the issue.
1. How do you talk to kids about gender in an age-appropriate manner?
An easy and age-appropriate way is simply through incorporating books into their reading routines that offer characters that don’t conform to gender norms. By providing role models through books, you can expand your child’s imagination and show diverse ways of expressing oneself. You can provide more female role models for girls who don’t fit the typical box — pioneers in science, chemistry, athletics, diplomats, journalists, philosophers. Provide male role models who don’t fit the traditional man box — men who speak up as peacemakers, homemakers, nurses, teachers, and feminist activists.
Additionally, there are books that more explicitly tackle the issues that come up for kids when they try to challenge gender norms. For example, I Love My Colorful Nails and Jacob’s New Dress are both about young boys who seek to express themselves through means that are traditionally associated with girls. While reading these books, you can ask your child, “do you think it was right for them to get bullied?” and “why can’t nail colour or dresses be for boys too? Who decides these kinds of rules?” You can also affirm that each person is wonderfully unique and just because someone is born with different body parts does not predict their qualities or what they like – “just like we can’t predict what a person will be like based on what colour eyes they have, we can’t predict what a person will be like based on if they are a boy or a girl.”
Also due to how gender-segregated the world still is, there are ample opportunities to simply question your own child’s assumptions as the topic comes up naturally. For example, if shopping for a friend’s birthday party at a toy store, you can say, “some toy stores don’t have signs saying these toys are for girls and those are for boys, but this store does. What do you think makes something a girl’s toy verses a boy’s toy? Why is this?” The important thing is to encourage your child to critically question gender norms so that they don’t become bullies or internalise shame due to their own desire to not conform.
2. How can gender stereotyping impact a child?
As young as age four, children begin policing each other to adhere to strict gender rules, attentive to point out to other kids, “you can’t wear that, it’s a girls color,” or “you can’t play with that, it’s a boy’s toy.” Children quickly learn from observing media, books, and those around them that in order to be loved and fit-in, they must adhere to gender stereotypes.
There are two overarching negative effects:
First, for children who do conform and become captive to restrictive gender rules, they only cultivate the qualities and skills acceptable to their gender. As a result, they can grow up emotionally stunted and lose out on wholesome development. For example, girls conditioned into submissiveness become quieter as they play out the roles of deference they are expected to take on as they grow older. Boys, valued for competition and aggressiveness, start to bully actively and consciously to fulfill their manhood identity.
Secondly, for children who do not conform to gender stereotypes, they will be more likely to suffer from bullying and being ostracised from their peers. Unfortunately, adults often further the isolation a child feels by encouraging them to conform in order to avoid further bullying. The reality is that children who are bullied at school and encouraged to conform at home only internalise that their true selves are unlovable.
3. Some parents are now going for gender-neutral parenting. What are its pros and cons?
Gender-neutral parenting is an incredibly courageous and difficult act that requires an ongoing commitment to a child’s authenticity, equality, and right to holistic human development. The pros of gender-neutral parenting is that your child will feel more free to experiment with how they want to express themselves and will be able to develop their own capacities in more entirety. A child will feel unconditionally loved, treated more equally in their household, and build a greater sense of trust with their parents. A gender-neutral parent can be more focused on providing books and toys that cut across gender-lines to ensure their child is developing empathy, special reasoning, problem-solving, and collaboration verses simply choosing toys based on gender restrictions. Children will develop with higher emotional intelligence or EQ because ideally they would not be as subjected to the gendered reputation emotions have in our societies and the stigmas attached to them.
In order to parent gender-neutrally, a parent would need to help their children make sense of the gender-discriminatory world they live in, encouraging this dialogue and analysis can foster an increase in critical thinking skills. No matter how passionate we are about gender-neutral parenting, given we’ve all been socialised in a gender stereotyped world, it is critical to seek guidance from professionals such as books — Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue and Peaceful Parenting: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting — so that we can constantly reflect on the subconscious biases, double-standards, and potentially discriminatory practices we may not even realise we’re promoting in our parenting.
The cons of gender-neutral parenting arise from the fact that it is not widespread and you can’t keep your child in a bubble. As a result, outside your home, the vast majority of pressures on your child’s life will try to push them back into their gender stereotype. It is possible they could get teased for their choices and so parents must be prepared to help their child make sense of this and to put pressure on teachers and other parents about addressing gender-stereotype teasing. Gender-neutral parenting is easiest to do in a community of parents who can become a support group to discuss issues that arise, share helpful resources, and ensure your child as friends who will accept them for who they are.
4. Does allowing a child to explore their gender identity from a young age make things easier or challenging for kids, especially in spaces like schools?
Schools are already teaching gender identity whether they intend to or not, it’s just that they are typically subconsciously reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes that have been proven harmful. Schools do this through enforcing double-standards between male and female students, through teaching male-dominated versions of history, through choosing stereotypical stories and film characters for children to use as learning materials while providing no gender-norm analysis, and through the choices teachers make about how to intervene when children police each other’s self expressions.
When a school intentionally decides to utilise researched-based resources to help free children from harmful gender norms, it makes classrooms safe places for children.
5. How important is gender sensitisation for parents?
It is unbelievably important for parents to become gender sensitised. The root causes of much of the societal violence we see and the much of the unhealthy relationships in people’s individual lives can be traced to the impacts of seemingly harmless gender conditioning. Gender – the social rules dictating acceptable expressions and qualities for girls/women and boys/men – may have had the function to create a clear social structure by providing certainty of each person’s role and function in the family and society. The psychological research clearly demonstrates the harm gender restrictions have on our children’s wellbeing. For example, after 40 years of research, the American Psychological Association announced in the 2018 guidelines to assist health professionals in counteracting traditional masculinity, which they found to be correlated with higher rates of homicide, suicide, cardiovascular disease, alcoholism, bullying, sexual harassment, etc. Boys/men who adhere to the norms of stoicism, competitiveness, aggression, dominance, and refusal to ask for help or be vulnerable, suffer and so do those around them.
It’s easy to default into what is most familiar to us, which is how we’ve been parented ourselves or seen others parent, but it’s time to ask for help, read books, seek expert support in order to sensitize ourselves to ensure the wellbeing of our children. In the words of one of my favorite child psychologists, Dr Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, “There’s no shame in asking for help; the shame would be in reneging on your responsibility as a parent by damaging your child physically or psychologically.”
6. What would you like to tell parents who try to school kids into behaving as per gender norms?
As parents, it’s natural to want to ensure your child is successful and protected in the world, and most of us have been raised to believe that gender norms are biologically based and are essential for our child’s wellbeing and happiness; this might have been what our parents or teachers taught us. What we know now based on the latest research on child development is that myths like boys are more logical, unemotional, and aggressive and girls are more emotional, irrational, and appeasing are not backed by science. In fact, research shows that there are more differences between boys and other boys and more differences between girls and other girls than between boys and girls; basically being born with male or female body parts does not predict one’s qualities, abilities, or preferences.