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October 4, 2016

Parents may worry if their child doesn’t fit neatly into their traditional gender role, but should we be more concerned if they do? Greg Roughan asks the experts what’s really best for our children.

"I’m the Prince!” said the child in the playground. “That’s nothing,” said the other. “I’m the King!”

“Ha,” replied the third, climbing to the top of the jungle gym to deliver their masterstroke in this game of children’s one-upmanship: “I’m the Queen!”

It was all pretty normal stuff for these three friends, barring one small detail: the child who wanted to be Queen was a little boy.

It wasn’t a throwaway line either, he really did want to be a queen. He was fond of wearing sparkly dresses too. What did it all mean, wondered his parents? Would it pave a tougher road in life for their beloved child? Would he be bullied at school? 

Surprisingly, however, it seems it might be smarter to be concerned when the opposite is true. 

What do we mean by that? Well, it seems children who take on more conventional gender roles – boys and girls who grow into the men and women that society tends to approve of – may actually be more at risk. Experts actually believe that highly gender-stereotyped kids can be prone to eating disorders, violence, depression, relationship problems and risky behaviours in their teens and in adulthood. In short, the way in which we understand gender as parents can have
a deep influence on our children’s later lives.

Let’s talk about sex (and gender)

Before we get into that, let’s talk briefly about definitions. What is sex and what is gender?

In the most basic sense, sex is what’s between your legs, and gender’s in your head. Sex – whether you are male or female – is determined by your genes, while gender – whether you’re masculine or feminine – is a product of… well, partly your genes too. But mostly, scientists believe these days, it’s a result of society and the way in which we’re raised.

For example, Lise Eliot, the Associate Professor of Neuroscience at The Chicago Medical School and author of an excellent book on the subject, Pink Brain, Blue Brain, says that the differences in the brains of baby boys and baby irls are actually very minor. The main thing that’s hardwired appears to be sexual preference and after that the biggest noticeable difference in the sexes shows up in toy choice: baby boys really are programmed to be interested in moving objects such as trucks.

Boy and girl babies also differ in areas such as empathy and language skills (girls appear to be slightly better at these things), but interestingly, it’s only after the subtle influences of parents, peers and society start to shape those minor differences that they become more pronounced. In short, society grooms our babies into little pre-set moulds, developing some skills and robbing them
of others.

Is this really a problem?

For many of us, understanding sex and gender amounts to a big ‘so what?’. Alarm about rigid gender roles can seem a very latte-liberal thing. For, of course, there’s nothing inherently bad about these traditional social roles – they bring with them many excellent things. For instance, as an adult guy, feeling deeply that your confidence and assertiveness is a good thing can be a big help. Likewise, for women, knowing that the caring side of your personality is one of your strengths is also great. But for a grown man to feel that caring is weak, and for a woman to feel that expressing confidence is unseemly, can be destructive and limiting.

As Professor Nicola Gavey of Auckland University’s School of Psychology puts it:

“Rigid gender roles are definitely related to social problems such as violence, personal difficulties in wellbeing and mental health, as well as just being limiting overall for all of us.

“The raw potential of people is hugely more variable than what we conventionally think of as masculine and feminine, yet through culture and society we are pushed in subtle and not so subtle ways to become ‘girls’ and ‘boys’, ‘men’ and ‘women’. Not all of us conform to the same extent, of course, to these boxed-in categories, but the pressures are definitely there and they do have
a powerful role in shaping how many of us develop as people.”

Are there real risks?

According to Professor Gavey, the risks of rigid gender roles for boys are often overlooked. “A big problem is the way that young boys are discouraged and condemned for normal feelings of distress and vulnerability. If young boys are not given the full range of care and comfort (e.g. blocked from crying or being sad and seeking comfort and reassurance), then that unrecognised hurt and vulnerability can become very destructive – both for them and for the way that they understand their masculinity and act it out in relation to others.”

If it’s not okay for a boy, and then a man, to be hurt, to be vulnerable, to be weak, says Gavey, then their limited ability to respond to those feelings as adults can result in depression, violence and/or controlling behaviour in relationships.

For girls, the risks are perhaps better understood. Those who are discouraged from rough and tumble play and who are praised for a ‘feminine appearance’ (“Don’t you
look pretty!”) can come to see their body as an object to be looked at and admired, rather than something that enables them to move and act and be strong in the world. “There are obvious connections between this kind of feminine gender role,” says Gavey, “and things like eating and body image difficulties.”

What can we do as parents?

Ultimately, as parents the ideal is to give our children the best of both worlds – to help them cope with life using all of the potential skills they’re born with, rather than just a pre-determined set. According to Professor Eliot, children first develop a sense of their own gender when they’re between two and three years old. It’s at this time they become deeply interested in expressing what they are or aren’t. “I’m not playing that, it’s a boy’s game”, becomes a common cry – as
do phrases like “Pink’s for girls”. It can be hard to change a child’s ideas (on anything) at this age! However, it’s likely that the groundwork for gender ideas is laid much earlier – and as parents, this is a time that we can play a big part. 

Parenting ideas: 

Strategies for boys

  • Remember to acknowledge the pain of a tumble, instead of dismissing it: “That must have really hurt…”
  • Encourage expressiveness: dancing, singing, make-believe – all of these are great ways to express internal states and teaches boys that this is an okay thing to do.
  • Playing with dolls helps develop those important empathy ‘muscles’.
  • Wanting to wear dresses is normal! Often when we describe ‘male’ clothing in female terms it automatically has a negative connotation. For instance, “That’s a girl’s hat”, usually means “That’sa bad hat for you to wear”. There’s no good reason for this – try to avoid it if you can.

Strategies for girls

  • Try to avoid praising girls solely for how they look. While it’s normal to talk about clothes and appearances, simply tweak the things you say. Instead of “Those shoes make you look pretty!” try “I bet you can run fast in those shoes!”
  • Don’t buy shoes and clothes that make physical activity difficult. (“You can’t climb up there honey, you’ll ruin your dress.”)
  • The website is a great resource for positive toys and books for girls.
  • Girls love Lego!


What does that mean in practice?

“Lots of care and comfort for boys as well as girls; lots of physical play and encouragement of normal ‘risks’ for girls as well as boys,” says Gavey. “And dolls and trucks for both girls and boys as young as possible!” It’s also helpful to be mindful of the instinctive (or rather, conditioned) ways we have of relating to babies of either sex. We often tend to dismiss the tears of a little boy more quickly (“Come on, it doesn’t really hurt”) and be more physically protective of little girls. However, it’s important, says Gavey, to allow boys to cry when they’re hurt and upset. “Let them know it’s okay to feel vulnerable and uncertain, so they can learn to regulate those feelings.” And don’t expect boys to grow up too soon. “Why do we call baby boys ‘little man’ for example? I’ve never heard anyone call a baby girl a ‘little woman’.”

For girls, it’s about letting them be more physical. “Don’t over-react to or ridicule their aggression,” says Gavey. “And be careful about complimenting them on their ‘prettiness’. Instead, look for opportunities to comment on how they use their bodies in active, fun, skilled ways.” 

For example, it can be much more constructive to praise them for things they are doing, such as throwing a ball, or kicking in water. 

“This gives them the message that their bodies are to be used and enjoyed and not things to be looked at by others.”

A dose of reality 

In the end, of course, if we want to bring these ideas to life in our own parenting, we do so in a world full of ideas of its own. And as you work hard day-by-day raising a baby, it’s also sensible to take the whole gender issue with a grain of salt.

For example, as you learn early on in the baby-raising gig, dressing girls in pink and boys in blue is as much for grown-ups as the babies themselves. Because we’ve all had that awkward moment of forgetting if someone’s new baby is a boy or girl, right? 

Plus, it can be vexing to have your robust little girl or elfin wee boy called ‘he’ or ‘she’ by mistake. And it’s far more important, for instance, that bubba enjoys play-time with Grandma or Grandad in the first place, rather than worrying about the way they call her
a “pretty little thing.”

However, on those days when we do find ourselves asked whether our baby is a boy or a girl, it can be helpful to remind ourselves how much the answer really matters: i.e. not a lot. And the less we care about it – and the more we help our children grow to their fullest potential, regardless of stereotypes – the more our children are likely to thank us later on.

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