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10 Ways to Avoid Gender Stereotyping in Children

10/04/2014 12:58 | Updated 09 June 2014

Last week, while walking to my son's preschool, we saw two rabbits in a field. We cooed and oohed and ahhed and giggled at just how frickin' cute they were for a few moments, when I thought I'd better seize the opportunity for some counting practice.

"Can you count how many rabbits you can see on the grass?"
"One, two, three, four..."

While I'd no idea where three and four were, I was reminded of Steve Biddulph's assertion - in his book Raising Girls - that boys and girls are encouraged to look at the world differently; boys through numbers and logic, and girls through beauty and feelings. Of course most of us appreciate that this is, at best, a little problematic, but how - I wondered - can the individual parent navigate and challenge gender stereotypes in their everyday parenting?

Inspired, I asked on my blog's Facebook page for some ideas. Further contributions are most welcome.

1. Try to resist seeing the world in pink and blue, despite the inevitable monochrome bombardment you'll face from the moment of your first child's birth. Despite what you're told, open your mind to the idea that both genders can appreciate a diverse palette.

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2. Be brave: tell other people how great the other colours are too, for both genders. Green is a good place to start since grass is green and everyone can enjoy skipping through a dewy green field in mid-spring. Green implies earthiness and nature and goodness.

3. Point out sexism to your children, where you see it. In books, television programmes, commercials, toys, everywhere. Encourage your children to challenge what they are told they should be into ("oh, isn't it weird how that commercial shows only girls hanging out at the pink Lego juice bar/by the pool? Boys like juice and swimming and hanging out, too").

4. Never say no based on gender. That's obvious, right? Girls can climb trees, boys can make cupcakes. In older childhood, girls should know they have the same right to be out in the evening as boys have, to own their bodies and the space they occupy the way boys own theirs. Allow reasonable freedoms, even if they contravene unwritten social norms.

5. Reverse the genders in common nursery rhymes or story books.

6. Make sure girls are wearing practical clothes at the playpark or in the woods. Or anywhere. Every time I'm at the playground with my children, there's always at least one girl in restrictive or awkwardly billowing clothing and blisterising sandals (or, in winter, cute boots that offer no support to the ankle) scaling the climbing frame with intermittent flashes of terror in her eyes, as she routinely almost falls off. The boys are invariably up and down the highest climbers with ease and confidence.

7. Encourage the positive traits that are typically over-cultivated in one gender, in the other gender; for example, nurturing in boys and math logic in girls. It's requires a bit of acceptance that sometimes nurture (in our society) can put massive limitations on a child's potential, through little fault of his or her parents. But it's mainly our job as parents to do the nurturing.

8. Don't encourage, don't discourage. You could just do nothing, say nothing, think nothing about gender stereotyping, and see what happens.

9. Provide opportunities to encourage the development of gross motor skills in girls and fine motor skills in boys. Or rather, don't write girls off as being better at small world play and boys as being designed only for climbing and jumping and stomping, before they've been given the chance to develop these skills and show otherwise.

10. Challenge your own gender-stereotyping attitude. There's no shame in having preconceived ideas about a child's likely personality traits or how they will behave based on their sex. Given how our culture is saturated with stereotypical messages about gender, I can't see how we could be any other way. It's not at all surprising that we as adults have the urge to generalise and anticipate. But it's important that we recognise the ways in which our children are being short-changed in the worlds they are allowed to access, according to their gender. And there's some work to be done to change that.

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