Five Ways Parents Can Challenge Gender Stereotypes



Does anyone have ideas for how to challenge gender expectations with their kids?” 

A mom asked.  Other parents were eager to give examples on the meeting’s icebreaker question.

I recorded their answers for this post and asked HFP’s director and teacher, Susan Eisman, to share her thoughts on challenging societal gender constraints. She relayed five ways we can challenge stereotypes and adds –

I would like children  to express the full range of what it is to be human, in the ways that are most satisfying to each of them. But the restrictive gender scripts that we have learned, and the social messaging that has taught us that girls should be one way and boys should be another can interfere with that goal.

In many settings, the basics of clothing and toys have been assigned to one gender or “the other.” Behaviors are often tidily divided up so half the population is supposed to get access to certain ways of being, while the other half gets access to other ways of being.  Our children are at risk of internalizing these restrictive messages.

“Behaviors are often tidily divided up so half the population is supposed to get access to certain ways of being, while the other half gets access to other ways of being.”

We’ve learned the term “opposite sex” as though males and females are completely different. We’ve been taught a gender binary that truly hinders everyone. Institutional oppression works to keep these boundaries rigid. Sexism and male domination threaten to limit both women and men, and homophobia and transphobia work to keep us pinned into rigid options of behaving and living.

At HFP, we acknowledge that gender stereotyping hurts all developing children. As adults, we can be curious about the messages we have learned in our own lives, homes, books and movies, that informs ways to be female “or” male.  We can counteract narrow gender scripting so we pass on less bias and fewer hurts to our children. Below are five ways we can counteract this script along with examples parents shared from their own experiences.

  • Reflect on what values we’ve learned and want to keep, while considering those we have learned and opt to reject.

I think it’s so important that boys get affection, including physical affection. Ideally from a lot of adults and other kids, and hopefully get to see men showing physical affection to each other. And more than the one-arm hug that can be common.

“It‘s okay to cry, to be vulnerable and to be compassionate…  it doesn’t make someone less masculine, which is what ‘s typically taught in our culture.”

  • Talk openly about stereotypes.homevisits

A**** threw his ball over the gate at me while I was working in the office. He asked, “Can you throw that back to be? Do you have that skill?…Do girls have that skill?” LOL So I surprised him when he wasn’t looking by throwing the ball at him and asked, “What do you think? Do girls have that skill?” He answered, “Yes,” while laughing.

With movies, we’ll stop and talk about what’s a realistic depiction. For example, if there’s a bunch of boy heroes with one token girl, then we’ll say that’s not the way things typically balance out – that there should be the same number of girls and boys, and of course girls can be superheroes, too.

  • Expose children to people who have pushed against gender stereotypes, claiming an activity or outfit that is deemed outside what is delegated as their proper realm.

I want to show how strong women can be…by being that badass woman …by being the one in the household who is going to grab that hammer and build a shelf – not from daddy’s toolbox, but from Mom’s toolbox.  Some book I bought was about a toolbox and at the end it said something like “I found all of these tools in my dad’s toolbox.” To which I commented ‘The toolbox we have is Mom’s toolbox.'”

  • Use inclusive language.

It’s good to talk not only about the fact that boys and girls can both (hammer, bake, hug, whatever), but also that not everyone fits the boy/ girl binary. I liked the suggestion by one of the other parents who suggested using the pronoun “they.” I try not to stress or even say that “A**** is a girl. I do say it, because it is hard to avoid, but she has said things before about being a boy and I don’t contradict her. I just say, yeah, sometimes you’re a boy.”

  • Challenge assumptions to pave the way for more expansive parenting. 

When we’re playing with legos and if he says, ‘he’ for a lego person, I’ll ask him if the lego could be he/she or non-binary. If he’s asking me if someone’s a boy or girl on the playground, instead of asking (because it can be intrusive), we say, ‘whatever they identify as’. We also say that the ways people look outside don’t always match the way they feel inside.”

 We  play powerful roles in shaping our children’s experiences of gender. As parents, caregivers and advocates, we can help our children access a broader range of human expression.

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