We got in touch with experts to find out how parents can learn to accept gender diversity and equality to sensitise children in the process.
A child’s perception of right and wrong comes from ideas fed by parents first, followed by society. Some of these values taught to children may also be coloured by societal morality and prejudices, apart from cultural differences. This, to an extent, explains why a girl child is brought up in way different from that of a boy, or a child in India is raised on values different from those in the West. And children are made to acknowledge these differences right from their initial years which, in turn, can lead to discrimination, reflected in their day-to-day attitude towards people around them.
This discriminatory behaviour may also affect how children respond to gender diversity. Many parents not only tend to abide by specific gender roles, at home and outside, but also pass on the same behavioural pattern to their children. Each time a child deviates from what is considered a “normal” gendered behaviour, he or she is corrected and sometimes, even scolded. It is for the same reason that a child often finds it okay to bully or make fun of a friend or any other person who behaves “differently”.
If a child has to be sensitised to gender issues, it has to begin by raising him or her in a more liberal environment that acknowledges diversity. Children can be sensitised only when their parents, teachers and elders are sensitised too. But how does that happen?
Be open to dialogue
One cannot expect parents to change their ideologies overnight. What they can at least do is to overcome all rigidity and be open to dialogue. Childhood can be a precarious time with young girls and boys still exploring their gender identities. Having clear and friendly conversations with children can also ensure they have their parents’ support in situations where they struggle to identify with a certain gender role. California-based author and parent Shruthi Rao, for instance, told Express Parenting about how her daughter ended up marrying two of her girl dolls. “When my daughter was five or six, she wanted to know who voiced Dory in the movie Finding Nemo, so I googled Ellen DeGeneres and showed her the picture. My daughter saw Ellen with Portia de Rossi and asked who she was. So I said, ‘Ellen’s wife’. So my daughter said, ‘Wife? But Ellen is a woman.’ Then I just said, ‘Yes, some women like women, and some men like men, and they get married.’ ‘Oh,’ she said. And that was that. She had accepted it completely as just another fact of life (which it is). Later on, of course, she tried to get her friend to get their two female dolls married, to the shock and confusion of everybody involved!” she said.
Practice what you preach
According to writer and queer feminist Shals Mahajan, the process of sensitising adults and children about gender needs to be done simultaneously. To begin with, parents need to practise gender equality at home even before educating their children. “I think that when children see gender playing out so rigidly in their home and other environments, they too begin to imbibe some of the same values and ideas. So it is never enough to just say that there is equality, that there is no difference between boys and girls, that they can do what they want. It is important to actually live like that. And that to me seems like the most difficult thing for people to do, because that means looking at your own life and way of living and seeing how gender and other hierarchies work within. It means looking at how as adults we interact with each other, whose work is valued more, who makes the decisions, who has more power, who is allowed to get away with anger, the way in which people speak to each other-these small and big things that are part of our daily living,” she told Express Parenting.
Mahajan added, “This extends to all our interactions with people, in public spaces, in our work spaces, in larger community spaces, and in schools. Our daily interactions with people from different castes, class, age, gender, social and other status, are not on democratic equal terms of mutual respect and children see this and are deeply affected by this. I think as a society we need to learn to be more democratic and equal in all our interactions. We need to be open to seeing our own interactions and changing those while at the same time having these discussions openly with children. We need to acknowledge these hierarchies and their wrongness and have discussions on how to make these shifts in our lives and behaviours.”
The lack of acceptance of gender diversity mainly stems from ignorance. Despite growing awareness, there remain people who continue to condemn homosexuality as a mental illness, while others ridicule anyone who behaves in a way that doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes. “There’s a lot of fear among people about gender mainly because of their ignorance. At one point, people were uncomfortable with left-handedness; people were afraid of talking about cancer. To understand gender diversity and to accept it as something completely normal, one needs to educate himself or herself. Only that can change the mindset,” suggested Dr Debmita Dutta, parenting consultant. And the education is possible through multiple channels, be it books, TV shows or awareness programmes.
Empathy and kindness
Dutta also talked about how people should refrain from labelling people by characteristics in, only to mock them-“the bad girl”, “the effeminate boy”, “the fat man”. “If you are indeed labelling people, identify them by their positive characteristics. People need to understand that a particular person may seem different but that doesn’t make them ‘abnormal’ or ‘bad’,” she added.
With improved social awareness and education, people will also learn to be more empathetic towards others. “We need to become more empathetic to people around us. At various points in our life, we come across people who are different from us; they may speak a different language or they may dress differently, for example. It is important for us to be able to put ourselves in the shoes of other people, and to teach children about the same. I have always noticed that unless you point out to your children that someone is different, they have no inkling about it. Parents need to be kind and empathetic and teach the same to children in the process,” Dutta further pointed out.