When we do not prioritise providing counter messaging to restrictive gender rules, the silence reinforces the subconscious idea that children must sacrifice their freedom of expression and wholesome development in order to conform, says Ariana Abadian-Heifetz
As young as age four, children begin policing each other to adhere to strict gender rules — attentive to point out “you can’t wear that, it’s a girl’s colour,” or “you can’t play with that, it’s a boy’s toy.” As social beings dependent on adults, children carefully absorb and attune to social norms given their survival requires continued inclusion within their families. It is this desire to be accepted that causes a boy to suppress his perfectly natural human inclination to cry and be held as he becomes indoctrinated into the idea that these healthy behaviours are unacceptable and weak for boys and men.
When we do not prioritise providing counter messaging to restrictive gender rules, the silence reinforces the subconscious idea that a child must sacrifice their freedom of expression and wholesome development in order to conform. The absence of thoughtful and consistent dialogue around gender in homes and schools is a vacuum that, luckily, we can work together to fill.
identify Double Standards
Whether at home or in school, the important first step is to become aware of double standards and not accidentally enforce them. Hold girls and boys to the same standards of what it means to be a “good person”, instead of teaching them different values of a “good boy” and “good girl.” For example, it is important that all children learn how to be responsible by helping make food, not just girls. Similarly, it is important for all children to feel empowered that they can fix things by learning to use construction tools, not just boys.
Girls and women are often labelled bossy or a tomboy when they are physically active and assertive. The conservative standard of a “nice girl,” where a girl is not supposed to stand up for herself, can discourage her from the proactive, authentic, and hardworking qualities we value in boys. It’s important to encourage a girl’s curiosity, determination, and grit, not simply her ability to please and serve others.
It’s also crucial to encourage a boy’s empathy and capacity to collaborate and communicate thoughtfully, not simply his ability to command attention and compete. When we celebrate boys from an early age for their capacity to be vulnerable, emotional, and ask for help — that these are signs of strength and courage — we create better people who are less likely to resort to violence when experiencing emotional turmoil and are more likely to thrive in their professional and personal relationships.
of Diverse Role Models
As adults in their lives, you are a living role model who can purposely look for ways to step outside the typical box of gender expectations. By doing so, you will inspire the children in your life to dream beyond these restrictions and discover what their own authentic expression looks like. As a parent, one place to start is by having conversations with your partner about how your self-expressions and responsibilities divide based on traditional gender roles and where could be opportunities to experiment with new forms of expression and distribution of responsibilities.
For example, maybe Dad makes breakfast and Mom makes dinner, or both Mom and Dad read bedtime stories and snuggle before bed. As a father, you can make a conscious effort to share your feelings, tell your kids you love them, and make it safe for your kids to do the same. Show your children that responsibilities — whether it’s caring for the house or earning income — are not assigned based on something as arbitrary as what body parts one has, but instead get divided based on thoughtful conversations and mutual understanding.
Schools and families can also be more intentional about providing role models through books and films to help expand children’s imagination for what is possible for them and show a diversity of ways to express themselves. 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.
Have Open Conversations
When your kids see music videos, films, commercials, and sexist media, engage in discussions about what they’re seeing and how what they’re watching makes them feel. At home and in your classrooms, show sexist memes and have debates about the difference between free speech and hate speech, objectification and how we are taught to primarily value women for their bodies as lovers or mothers and value men for their capacities to obtain wealth and women. Discuss unrealistic and racist beauty standards and the way marketing uses the female body as a means to sell products. Help kids be critical thinkers, questioners, and discern for themselves what makes these mindsets problematic.
Even with little children, when you hear of a child labelling something based on gender, “those are boy’s sunglasses,” use it as a learning opportunity to question that idea. Ask them what makes something a boy’s sunglasses and what’s the point of such categories? Why is it that the blue Kinder egg is only meant for boys? Does this make any sense? Then show them counter-examples to these “rules”.
Don’t Wait to Teach them
Nursery is a great time to begin teaching children about boundaries and consent. By doing so, parents and schools can take preventative measures against unnecessary traumas, embarrassment, body shaming, or bullying rather than simply reacting after the fact.
Share with children that they get to choose whether someone can touch their bodies and that they are allowed to choose whether or not they want to hug or kiss someone. Saying “no” when someone pinches their cheeks or makes them feel uncomfortable is an important first step to ensure that they feel reassured to speak up if someone does something inappropriate. Teaching children they have a right to their bodies and should always come tell their parents if something happens to them, is an essential part to keeping them safe and empowering them into the future. Equally important is keeping your children informed with the proper vocabulary for their body parts and as they grow, stay ahead of the game by informing them about the changes soon to come with puberty. When adults withhold the scientifically proper names for private parts, children begin to internalise that these body parts are shameful and secretive. This in turn can prevent a child from sharing with a trusted adult if they are touched inappropriately on these private parts.
Especially ensure all children — boys and girls — learn about menstruation in order to diminish the stigma, shame, and bullying that girls experience. When adults keep menstruation a secret, children experience it as a bad thing and can begin believing women’s bodies are dirty or impure. Far too many women think they are dying with the onset of their first period, given they were provided no prior warning that one day blood would start flowing from their bodies. One way we start creating equality is by teaching kids when they are young that the bodies of girls and boys have some differences, lots of similarities, and are all worthy of equal celebration and pride.
Utilise Available Books
The great news is that there are experts from around the world who have developed credible child-friendly books and curriculums for teachers and parents to learn from and use. Some curriculums we draw inspiration from in our school is ‘Live Respect’ by A Call to Men, ‘Very Young Adolescence 2.0’ by Promundo, ‘The Mask You Live In’ by the Representation Project, and Advocacy for Youth’s sexuality education curriculum. These resources provide teachers and parents age appropriate information on relationships, gender, and sexuality that can be altered to meet our cultural context.
The writer is the Head of Social-Emotional Learning, Heritage Xperiential Learning School, and author of the info-comic on menstrual hygiene, Spreading Your Wings