It seems like everyone is talking about gender these days, and the topic can be tricky – especially for parents. Many of us are still trying to grasp some of the complexities ourselves, and that can leave us wondering how on earth we’re supposed to explain gender to our kids. It’s also common to second-guess our parenting skills, asking questions like:
Do I need to make everything gender neutral for my child?
Is it bad for my child if our family has traditional gender roles at home?
How can I help my child not to feel limited by their gender?
What can I do to help my child avoid gender stereotypes?
In HelloJoey’s “Nurturing the Gender Story” kit, we take a look at what gender actually is, how it develops, and how our views of it influence the way we parent. We also share research and talk to the experts so you can understand how to approach gender with your child in healthy and constructive ways.
Should I focus on making everything gender neutral for my kid?
You may have heard about the trend toward gender-neutral parenting, when parents work to raise their kids free from gender messages, restrictions, and stereotypes. It’s an approach that’s right for some families, but it won’t feel comfortable for everyone. Each family is different, and only you can decide what works for yours.
When it comes to the gender messages we send to our kids, the experts suggest that being gender neutral isn’t as important as exposing your child to a wide variety of options and letting them choose what they like. You can do this in many ways throughout your child’s life – and these are just a few examples:
When you’re decorating your newborn’s nursery, opt for a rainbow that features all of the colors instead of just one.
Give your toddler a selection of toys that includes both dolls and blocks.
Encourage your middle school daughter to enter the science fair as well as the poetry competition.
Child psychiatrist Dr. David Hong expounds on this idea of giving our children options to help remove gender limitations. “We don’t necessarily need to police every single toy that our child is choosing, but be more conscious about the full spectrum of what those toys might represent. That might include giving them lots of options about the way that they interact with these toys and the context in which they put the toys. The doll can be a carpenter, for example.”
By encouraging our kids to think beyond gender stereotypes and letting them choose the clothes they wear and the activities they join, we can avoid making them feel they need to be a certain way because of their sex. You don’t have to be intentionally gender neutral; just present your child with options and let them to choose what they like, and they’re less likely to feel limited by the idea of “boy” stuff or “girl” stuff.
Should I worry about traditional gender roles at home?
This same idea of giving your child many different examples and options goes for the gender roles you’re modeling for your child at home. What we model is a big part of parenting, and our kids look to us for examples of how to behave – and how to determine what they think of as “normal.” Psychologist Dr. Ruth Burtman explains that no matter what your family dynamics – single parent, same-sex parents, or heterosexual parents – they’ll shape how your child perceives gender as an adult.
“If we grew up with a mother and a father in traditional gender roles – the father worked every day and the mother did work but was more focused on raising the kids and staying home and doing the cooking – then those are going to be our natural implicit understandings of how gender works. If we had a mother who was a scientist and a stay-at-home dad, we would have different conceptions of how gender gets played out.”
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with traditional gender roles, but you can help your child understand gender in a more rounded way if you also expose them to examples of less traditional gender roles and let them know those are also “normal.” Point out how Timmy has two moms – and one goes to work as a scientist – or that Kelly’s dad does all the laundry in their house, and that’s all normal as well.
If your family tends to divide chores or responsibilities along traditional gender lines, explain to your child that in some of families, Mom stays home and takes care of the kids and Dad goes to work – and that’s perfectly okay. If Mom loves cooking and Dad really enjoys working on the car, that’s fine, too. You won’t hurt your child if you model more traditional gender roles, but make it clear that these roles aren’t the way that it has to be because Mom’s a girl and Dad’s a boy.
For many parents, the idea of dealing with gender as it relates to their kids can feel overwhelming or uncomfortable. You get to decide how you address it with your child and what stance you want to take. Just remember: The more awareness you have, the better you’ll be able to equip your child to deal with these issues out in the real world, help them to avoid gender stereotyping, and prevent them from ever feeling limited by their gender.
To help you gain that awareness, HelloJoey’s “Nurturing the Gender Story” kit takes an in-depth look at gender to clear up some of the confusion surrounding this complicated topic.
Want to learn more about “Nurturing the Gender Story?” Start your path to a solid parenting foundation in just 10 minutes a day. Check out the HelloJoey app.