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4 Ways Parents Can Help Break Down Society's Gender Assumptions

The world we live in is gendered. The world our kids are growing up in is gendered. Despite being told "you can be anything you want to be", the message our kids get tell a very different story. In a perfect world, we would all be able to define what our own gender means to us, instead of having others define, shape and police it for us. But that is not the case.

I've written three posts recently about society, gender and our children:

In this post, the fourth and final one in the series, I ask what we can do about these issues.  It seems easier when they are little -- you don't have to put your baby girl in pink clothes, you can buy a doll and a kitchen for your toddler boy, or you can even opt not to disclose the sex of your baby to people outside of your immediate family. But as they get older,  as peer and media influences play a more important role in our children's lives, the answers are no longer as easy.

There are, however, things that we can do. In this post, I'm talking specifically about the things that we can do to combat the negative influence of gender assumptions on our children, but these four steps can apply to many other situations too.

1. Question Things

The first thing we can do is to keep our eyes open and question things. Instead of simply accepting that there is a pink aisle (girls) and a violence aisle (boys),  we can keep an open mind and question why things are done that way. Instead of simply accepting that pre-teens wear sexy clothes, we can question why. Instead of simply accepting that girls have long hair and boys have short hair, we can question that. Instead of assuming that construction workers are men and nurses are women, we can question that.

By keeping our eyes open, we'll begin to notice the way that almost everything is gendered and that so many images, practices, and words are telling our children a story about who they are and who they can become. If we ignore it and simply accept it as "normal", then we won't be well positioned to ask for change or to accept and support our children or their friends if they make different choices.

2. Talk About It With Your Kids

The next thing we can do is to talk to our children about the messages that society is sending them. Teach them to question why "girls like pink" and "boys like trucks". Help them to see the hidden message behind a t-shirt that says "I'm too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me."  Ask them if they really hate pink or if they only hate pink because they think boys are supposed to hate pink. Talking about these things will help them to open up their eyes and look at things differently and it will also teach them that you are okay with them eschewing societal norms.

I think it is important to teach children that they have alternatives and that they don't have to accept what society dictates to them. But I also think it is okay to let them choose to fit sometimes, if they are doing it with open eyes. In life, we all have to make decisions about when to go with the flow and when to make waves. Making waves is important, but it is also exhausting and can make you feel like an outsider sometimes. If my children want to conform with societal expectations at times, because it is easier, I'm okay with that.

There are sometimes when doing something in order to fit in may not be a big deal (e.g. a boy choosing not to wear a flowery hat even though he likes it because he doesn't want others to make fun of him) and there are other times when doing something in order to fit in can be very damaging (e.g. giving blow jobs at recess because that is what the 'cool girls' do).

Ultimately, I think giving our children the confidence to make good decisions based on what is right for them instead of based on peer pressure, is important (but not easy). I love this letter 'Dear Girls of the World today', which points out that everything "is geared toward telling you that something is wrong with you," but that:
If you are a girl, you are a girl. Period, finish, end statement. It doesn't matter what you look like or what you enjoy doing. It doesn't matter what your assigned birth sex is or was. It doesn't matter who or what or why you love. All that matters is that you love, and that you accept that you are you, and you are awesome.

That is really what I would love every child to remember -- that they are awesome, that they are an individual, and that they are free to love, appreciate, and enjoy whatever they choose.

 3. Ask For Change

When you come across something you think is overly gendered or sending the wrong message to our children, you can ask for change. Whether that is by sending an e-mail, writing a blog post, cancelling a service, or taking the time to speak to a company representative about your concerns.

Recently, Mrs. Penguin from Feisty Penguin received her weekly sale e-mail from fabric.com. The link took her to a page promoting its "Girls Only" and "Boys Only - No Girls Allowed" fabrics. While the large graphics promoting this sale are now gone (they were just there for the weekly sale), there is still a side-banner promoting the gendered fabric selections. Not just "girls" and "boys", but specifically "girls only" and "boys only - no girls allowed". Who does this messaging help? No one. Mrs. Penguin, a loyal fabric.com customer, took the time to write an open letter to them expressing her concern and asking for change.

Julie from Coffee with Julie, recently wrote about cancelling her subscription to Canadian Business magazine. She felt that the magazine was using sexualized imagery in an attempt to sell the magazine to its male target audience. As a business woman and longtime reader of the magazine, she found the images inappropriate and offensive. She wrote a blog post about it and cancelled her subscription.

After attending a top latina retreat for bloggers, Veronica from Viva La Feminista shared that she "had a positive conversation with a McDonald's rep about about gendered happy meals." Although gendered toys is obviously only one of the issues with McDonald's, Veronica took the time to explain to the rep that it might be better to ask families if they want the Barbie toy or the Lego toy instead of asking if they want the girl toy or the boy toy.

4. Seek Out Alternatives

Finally, we can seek out alternatives. This is probably the hardest of the four points because we don't have free choices all of the time, the choices that we do have are heavily layered in privilege, and every choice that we make has consequences.

Choosing a different care environment or school is one example. A lot of parents feel that their children are getting the wrong messages at school about who they are and what they can achieve in life. Sometimes those messages come from teachers, sometimes from the administration, sometimes from the curriculum and sometimes from other children and families. Not everyone has access to alternative schools or is able to homeschool, but for some people looking into alternatives like that may be the best way to go. On her blog Uppercase Woman, Cecily wrote about considering an alternative school for her daughter when she felt that she was getting damaging messages at her public school.

Changing schools is a big decision, but others can be more subtle. Walk into any Wal-Mart and you'll see plenty of girls clothes with fairies and princesses on them and plenty of boys clothes with trucks and skulls. But what if a girl wants to wear a dress, but loves cars? Where are the dresses with cars on them? If you go by the "rules" set out in the fabric.com example above, there wouldn't be any such thing -- society needs to adhere to "girls only" and "boys only" categories. But not everyone plays by those rules. For example, @upstatemamma has an Etsy shop where she sells dresses with characters that are generally considered to be for "boys", like Spiderman, Batman, Wall-E,  Scooby Doo and CARS dresses in addition to the typical princess and fairy dresses.

Sometimes seeking out alternatives means looking beyond mainstream big box stores, beyond the public school system, and beyond your immediate neighbourhood. It may mean seeking out other friends with similar values, other schooling options, or different shopping experiences. It isn't always easy and isn't always possible, but looking for opportunities to break away from the mold can help push things in the right direction for your family and for society.

Breaking Down Gender Assumptions

By keeping our eyes open, talking to our children, asking for change, and seeking out alternatives, we can start to make a difference. I don't think any one of these four techniques is the right one in all situations. I think we need a combination of all of them, depending on the situation and depending on the day. Bit by bit, little by little, we can make progress and help both our girls and our boys realize that they can be anything they want to be.

How have you used these four techniques in your family? What has worked for you? Where have you seen progress?

This is the final post in a series of four posts looking critically at the way society, corporations and media influence the role girls and women are expected to play in society. The posts are written by me (Annie @ PhD in Parenting) and are generously sponsored by Pigtail Pals.

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Reader Comments (32)

Unfortunately (but fortunately!) we were given all of her clothes from a family member who was finished with them, and most of the baby stuff was pink. But I've also had to make some of my own purchases for her - slippers and rain boots, for example. I couldn't understand why slippers were divided between princess and GI Joe, so I just picked a set of blue Cars slippers for her. I also went to the "boys" section for her rainboots, and was sad to see the only option was army-style boots. She is still only 2 years old, but I"m hoping to point these things out to her as she gets older, and begin a dialogue. I don't care if she likes pink or barbies, I just hope she does because it's truly about her own interests and not about gender assumptions.

May 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMisty Pratt

I recently got my 9 and 11 yo girls a subscription to new moon magazine. When they got home from school I told them I got them a magazine subscription, and they said "NOOO....we don't want to read about lip gloss!!". They are so aware they are targets, and they're not happy about it.

May 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJulie Cole

I love New Moon Girls and I love that your girls are so aware. :)

May 27, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

We constantly discuss gender with our kids. Right now my son is three and a half, so he's just getting to the age where he's starting to differentiate "girl" things from "boy" things. This is giving us lots of fodder for conversation. Their actions don't always change based on what I say, but I like to think that they are hearing an alternative message all the same.

We also week out alternatives in terms of toys, shopping, and so on. I avoid taking my kids to the mall as much as possible. This doesn't only help my kids to avoid the gender messages they would get there, it saves me money, too.

May 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmber

I was actually a bit surprised at their reaction.....we are always talking about gender so it wasn't that, it was that they are tweens and they were aware that lipgloss companies would target them. And - that they thought there were only magazines for tween girls that would be like that. Yes, thank you New Moon!

May 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJulie Cole

My 7year old daughter wanted a blue shirt, so I said we should go to the boy area. She asked me if the blue shirts were in the boy area, because people think blue is for boys. I told her that yes people think that, but she could like whatever she wants. This is the first time she realized that maybe blue was a "boy" colour. I think that homeschooling has really helped in this regard, because, despite many of her friends wearing all pink, no one seems to notice that she doesn't wear pink.

I do think that it it funny though that my son until recently had long hair (never cut until almost 5), but my kids still think that people with long hair are girls. They never seem to generalise to other boys can have long hair no matter how many times I tell them this.

May 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

"Veronica took the time to explain to the rep that it might be better to ask families if they want the Barbie toy or the Lego toy instead of asking if they want the girl toy or the boy toy."

I love that she did this. My preschooler is typically what most people would describe as "all boy": active, loud, energetic, cannot sit still, loves the building and the rough play (though plenty of the girls at his preschool play this way too). Rarely do we go to McDonald's, but when we do, he does opt for the kiddie meal and it is extremely rare that the "boy" toy is what I consider appropriate for his age. My son also loves Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Pony, and would have been happier with these toys instead of the "boy" toy he didn't even recognise.

May 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLara

Shopping at smaller businesses is a way to avoid some of the pink aisle/blue aisle situations. Small, local toy shops, for example, tend to have less branded stuff and it tends to be organized around what type of play it is, not which gender it's targeted at. At least that's my experience with the shops in my city.

May 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNatalie B.

I was quite surprised on discovering that little girls don't always think they can do everything... gender stereotypes were never encouraged or really seen in my upbringing. Apparently I started making a huge fuss over anything pink/sparkly/traditionally girly when I was about 3, and refused to be near it or associated with it at all. I had quite short hair all my life and when I was a child, my mother would often be asked if I was a boy or a girl because I did not wear skirts and would run around outside with the boys while the other little girls sat inside and played with dolls, and was occasionally assumed to be a boy. (which I was totally fine with)

I never really appreciated that this isn't what happens in most families, and have only recently started coming up against gender stereotypes as a problem. It's confusing and kind of saddening that there's all sorts of pressure on kids to conform.

May 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSophia

In my family we have never questioned things. We just let be what is. This has been a little bit of a learning lesson for my partner. I come from a place where men and women hunt, cook and clean together. I don't question what is unless it becomes a concern for my children or I. I teach them a deeper spirit, the difference between right and wrong on important ethical and moral matters, the outcome of their choices if negative, and that there are always ways of thinking that feel better than others. I teach them to treat others kindly because we don't know their lives. I don't tell them what to think I talk with them about what they are thinking. My son would wear a pink shirt if it was what was clean and could care less if he had long hair or short. I make him cut it because he is very active and sweats. We wondered about him for awhile, but he has naturally fallen in with the other young men, has a natural attraction to beautiful women, nerf guns, comeptitive sports and fishing. He didn't figure out the difference between boys and girls as a stereo type until he was seven or so. My daughter is two and prefers super hero attire and toys. She will play with barbies, but loves toy cars, Woody and Buzz the best. She asks me to cut her hair frequently and will not wear any hair clips or pony tails. She has told me on a couple of occasions that she is a boy, despises dresses like they are causing her pain to put them on, but loves her pink Dora crocs and pink rubber boots. I'm curious to see if this changes as she starts school and meets more girls since she spends a lot of time with her big brother and his friends. Either way who ever they are I love them. I asked my son what he wanted to be when he grows up and he said to me, "a good person mom". At that moment I knew I was doing something right.

May 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTorie

Looking at kids and gender (and society's role) is a cornerstone of my work, and I love that you did this series, Annie! (How am I just seeing it now?). I looked at the history of McDonald's gendered happy meals in my Bitch series last Fall and it's remarkable how ties into marketing/profit it all is. In fact, that's how we started upon the whole concept of hyper-gender marketing, at least here in the US (post-war need to raise profits had marketers start color coding clothes/toys to cajole parents to buy more rather than continue to use hand-me-downs). The history of kids & gender is fascinating.

May 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAvital

Another New Moon fan here! That and Cricket magazine are my 11 year old's subscriptions.

May 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

I also try to avoid saying or agreeing with gendered statements while my boys are in earshot (or ever, if I can help it)! People so often want to claim a trait is "girly" or "all-boy," and I often point out that my two boys are quite different from each other, so most traits are inborn or cultured by society as they get older. It's tiresome to hear parents constantly making generalizations about the genders when I'm just trying to enjoy some time at the park with my kids. At a birthday party once, my son was the only boy not running around behaving like a hooligan. Another mom looked at me and said, "Just wait til he's older. They're ALL like that." My son is now the same age as hers was, and he's still not like that. But some boys are, and some girls are. Why must we speak in absolutes? It's limiting to our children and to us as parents.

May 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJessica@Team Rasler

I haven't heard of New Moon - thanks for the tip! My DD only reads Owl magazine right now. I'm going to check it out!

May 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCoffee with Julie

This post is on a topic very close to my heart! I think about these issues all the time in relation to my own life and that of my children -- my son and daughter.

I really think you've done a great job in providing some practical tips and this one in particular rang as especially true to me:

"I think it is important to teach children that they have alternatives and that they don't have to accept what society dictates to them. But I also think it is okay to let them choose to fit sometimes, if they are doing it with open eyes. In life, we all have to make decisions about when to go with the flow and when to make waves. Making waves is important, but it is also exhausting and can make you feel like an outsider sometimes. If my children want to conform with societal expectations at times, because it is easier, I'm okay with that."

May 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCoffee with Julie

Our son is young enough he doesn't have a concept of boy stuff vs. girl stuff yet for the most part, but my husband and I have talked about it and our plan is to just handle individual things as they come up and explain to our kids that 99% of boy/girl division is arbitrary. And of course we model things like me wearing blue and using power tools and my husband cooking (delicious) food. Personally we think that there are natural/God-created differences in women and men beyond physical differences (although I guess you could argue that the biological differences in hormones between men and women cause much of the differences in emotional response and tendencies etc that I'm thinking of), but they pretty much don't correspond at all to society's perceived gender roles. No slutty princesses or jerky muscleman stuff will ever be found around my house!!

May 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCrunchy Con Mommy

You "had" to go to the boys section- seriously? I know there's no lack of pink when it comes to clothing for girls, but get real. Wither it's Gymboree or Children's Place; Macy's or JC Penny; Target or Walmart there are tops and entire outfits outfits in which the main colors are purple, yellow, red, green, and/or any and all other colors- even blue, in the girls department.

May 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDaphne Illisia

Yes! My daughter likes to have "fancy" hair (and her aunt and I are happy to oblige because braids etc are fun). She likes wearing girly clothes and playing with babies.

That's what people comment on, to the point where I've started to feel defensive. Yes, sometimes my kid is very "girly". Sometimes she wears a pink ballet tutu (likes the way it poofs when she twirls).

She also loves her cars / trucks / tractors, especially if there is a ramp (stairs!) to run them down. She likes to make mud pits and get dirty. She'd spend half the day flying down the driveway on the bike if we would let her. She doesn't understand why there are hardly any girls in the Lego magazine (one of her favourite toys). Her "best" colour is currently red. Or black. In short, she's an individual with a wide variety of interests. I can understand a bit why many of the kids around her seem to police "gender appropriate" behaviour ("you can't play with that, you are a girl"). But I do not understand why so many adults do the same thing!!!

May 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMary @ Parenthood

We were getting a uv shirt in particular. They only had pink and purple in the girl side, and blue in the boy side.

May 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

Thank you, PhD in Parenting! I love this post! Although I've just read this 4th one in a series of four, I so appreciate your writing here. I would like to post a link to this article on my blog. Is that OK with you?

I've been thinking about this topic a lot lately -- especially now that my first born is 3 and I'm expecting a baby in August. We don't know the sex our our second baby, and in a way, I'm quite personally terrified of bringing a girl into our society. 'Blowjobs on the playground at lunch because that's what the cool girls do' -- Just thinkin' of such a thing makes my blood pressure rise. Yikes, yikes, and double yikes!

Thanks again for direct and easy-to-accomplish ways to question gender in society. I hope more and more and more people become aware of the crazily gendered way our society is today.

May 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertaraeaton

I need some help here. I have a 5 yo girl and a 10 month old boy. The boy recently fell off a chaqir and fractured jis collarbone. "Oh, that's boys for you!' people say. Surely at 10 months the gender differences are small enough to be unrecognisable? Could someone give me the links to articles to this effect so I'm not just seen as being crazy feminist mummy (as I so often am)?

May 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJosie

I have cloth diapers for my daughter in many colours and prints. While showing them to my great-aunt recently, she expressed concern that I had pink ad purple diapers. 'What if you have a boy next? He can't wear pink and purple!' Yes, my great aunt was placing gender expectations on my unborn children. I just explained to her that no one would see the colours of the diapers under clothes, anyway!

May 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterErica

You're welcome to post a link to my blog, but not to copy the article itself (sorry if that is obvious -- seems there are many people on the Internet who don't understand that!).

May 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I bought my 4yo daughter boy shorts for her soccer team. Because I refuse to put her in low-cut, pink, sparkly, messaged, frilly 'girlie' shorts to play soccer.

I picked black because the blue ones didn't come in her size. All they had was black or blue in the style I wanted (which was simple and comfortable, above all).

Which brings me to the question: why can't boys wear colour? Green, or red, even different shades of pretty much any other colour, would suit my very athletic, sporty boy as much as the blue and black does.

May 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMocha

My partner, who is a bit traditional in a lot of ways, and I were at a sporting goods outlet store over the holiday weekend to buy him some socks. When we were heading to check out we came across a rack of highly reduced sales items and on the rack were down winter coats reduced to about $10. We are expecting in September, so we both had the same thought at the same time -- a winter coat for a great price! The jacket is maroon, with pink lining, so I hesitated and looked at my partner. He said, "what, I'd totally wear that color!" (and he does sometimes). I asked if he had any concerns that others might comment and he shook his head and said something along the lines that if other people wanted to be rude then we could just correct them. I was happy and proud.

We are finding that the gendering issue is impacting us now. We've made a decision not to find out the sex of our child. While some are supportive, perhaps 3/4 of folks ask how we could possibly plan a nursery or comment about how we are going to have to do a lot of shopping after the kiddo arrives (so we can buy "appropriate" clothing). We had a baby shower with my partner's family and many people said that they were not going to buy anything until after the birth and they find out if its is a boy or girl. Part of the reason is that non-gendered clothing options are limited in the rural area they live and they are not exactly progressive thinking people... but part of the reason is that they have certain ideas about what baby girls and baby boys *should* wear. I teased about the fact that when the older folks at the party were babies there were no "boys" sections and "girls" sections for baby clothes and everyone agreed... but still many were set on getting certain clothing in September!

May 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMartine

Many years ago my youngest daughter (age 3 at the time) was showing a new friend around the house. When she came to the laundry room, I heard her say, pointing to the sewing machine: "There's the sewing machine.....but only man use that." Interesting how we impart gender roles without even trying.

May 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLea Stublarec

[...] few short days later, my friend Annie over at PhD in Parenting wrote about gender and the things families can do to combat gender stereotyping. Her post is [...]

[...] few short days later, my friend Annie over at PhD in Parenting wrote about gender and the things families can do to combat gender stereotyping. Her post is [...]

[...] in Parenting wrote about gender and the things families can do to combat gender stereotyping. Her post is jam-packed with great [...]

[...] few short days later, my friend Annie over at PhD in Parenting wrote about gender and the things families can do to combat gender stereotyping. Her post is [...]

You can have as many links and articles as you like, and they'll still think you're crazy. You'll be seen as even more crazy for having proof!

June 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterConuly

[...] Vier Tricks, wie mensch das mit den gesellschaftlichen Gender-Rules und seinen Kindern hinbekommt, gibt es auf PhDinParenting. [...]

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