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Should gender change how we raise our kids?

Tabitha Barda wonders whether we can ever escape the gender stereotyping we internalise while growing up

Tabitha Barda
1 Sep 2015 | 12:00 am
  • Source:Corbis Images

We just found out that we’re expecting another boy. It knocked us both sideways a bit – not least because we’d been told at the 12-week scan that it was 80 per cent certain to be a girl, which means the 20-week revelation came as a surprise (why do radiologists speculate like that anyway?). But I was also struck, once again, with what a responsibility it is to raise a future young man in this world.

Now it’s not as if when I thought it was a girl I felt like I was going to get an easy ride. Not at all. But I am used to girls – I am one, for a start. I have two sisters. I went to an all-girls school. I was born in the middle of the Margaret Thatcher regime during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II – femaleness is familiar to me.

Of course deep down the new baby’s gender doesn’t matter at all, and any healthy child is an absolute blessing. But why did my husband and I get such a jolt when the expected sex suddenly switched?

The fact is, no matter how gender neutral you might strive to be, we are all social beings, and we internalise the gender lessons that we are taught while we are growing up. For instance, straight after we’d been for the 20-week scan, we happened to go shopping. I was attracted to a bright pink T-shirt for my 18-month-old little boy (perhaps I was projecting somehow after our surprise news), but just as I was about to pay for it, I found myself checking the label. It said ‘Boys’ on it, which gave me the go-ahead to continue. But what difference does a shop’s definition of gender-appropriateness make? It’s still a pink T-shirt after all…

A lot of kids’ brands have been getting flack for gender stereotyping recently. Last year the hashtag LetShoesBeShoes went viral after blogger Emma Dixon snapped the in-store marketing of a UK shoe shop that suggested boys are active as they ‘test their shoes to destruction’, whereas girls are passively pretty because they ‘love comfort and style’. “[This] reinforces damaging social stereotypes and deprives both sexes of the opportunity to become who they really are,” wrote Emma.

Much of the focus when it comes to gender stereotyping is on how girls are limited by our messaging. They’re often discouraged from the sorts of toys that might promote an interest in maths or science for example, and directed towards ones that encourage an interest in fashion or beauty. I went on a kid-friendly cruise earlier this year and noticed that all the girls were called ‘princesses’ by the staff, while the boys were called ‘captains’. Mums are actually harsher on daughters than sons, according to a Netmums survey, which found that one in five mums admitted they often turn a blind eye to behaviour in their sons for which their daughters would be ticked off.

But boys are also limited by gender messaging. Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains: “We teach boys to be afraid of fear… of weakness, of vulnerability. Masculinity becomes this hard small cage and we put boys inside the cage.”

It’s a sad image. So what’s the solution? US store Target has just announced its decision to phase out gender-based messaging in response to customer complaints. Meanwhile, a school in Nebraska advised teachers not to refer to children as girls or boys, but as 
‘purple penguins’ instead.

This might be a step too far, but all I know is that whenever we go to a soft play, my little boy makes a beeline for the dolls in prams, and he has a bright pink T-shirt in his wardrobe. I want him (and his brother-to-be) to feel happy to wear and play with what they like, whether it’s a dinosaur or a dolly. And if he moves on from them, I hope it’s because he wants to, and not because of any gender ‘cage’.

Tabitha Barda

By Tabitha Barda

Deputy Editor