Think about the moment you first learned you were having a baby. Did you start dreaming of taking your little girl to ballet lessons – or of throwing a football with your little boy? Now think about the moment you learned the sex of your baby. If it was the opposite of what you’d been hoping, you may have felt a tiny bit of disappointment as you had to shift your ideas about the future you’d share. Before your baby even arrived, you were most likely already influenced by your gender stereotypes.
Our attitudes and expectations about gender affect our kids and can leave them feeling shoehorned into specific roles or excluded if they don’t fit into what we present as normal. In HelloJoey’s “The Gender Journey,” we look at how we get our ideas about gender – and how we unknowingly pass them along to our children. We also investigate the dangers of gender stereotypes and the ways our preconceptions can limit our children, sharing solutions for how to set them aside and create a safe space for our kids to explore gender for themselves.
Where did I get my gender stereotypes?
While most of us like to think that we don’t stereotype others, our preconceptions are often so deeply ingrained that we don’t even realize we have them. A lot of what we learned about gender as children wasn’t taught explicitly, so it’s hard to recognize it consciously. Still, it’s there – in the slight surprise when a female surgeon walks into your exam room or when you instinctively hand your son a green sweater instead of a pink one. It can be hard to shake off those childhood preconceptions even when we logically know better.
The way we view gender as adults was shaped by our family dynamics as kids. If our parents held traditional gender roles – dad worked all day and mom focused on childcare and housework – we’ll most likely adopt those roles as our natural understanding of how gender works, but if mom was a scientist and dad stayed home, our conceptions may be a bit different. Along with the messages we got at home, our ideas were also reinforced or reshaped by messages from society: blue for boys, pink for girls; men are strong, women are nurturing.
“Through our whole lives, we carry different emotions and associations around with us,” says neuroscientist Dr. Alex Korb. “There's nothing inherently wrong about that, though you could call it “baggage” if it starts to build up and get in the way of things.” Thinking about how your childhood shaped your views can help you decide if it’s baggage that’s getting in the way – and whether you want to pass on your gender perceptions to your child. If you don’t, you can try to make a more conscious effort to send different messages.
How do I pass my gender stereotypes to my kid?
Just like how we were socialized affects how we see gender, how we socialize our babies – even unconsciously – shapes their views, too. “If I see a dress and a pink bow, to me, that says she's a girl, and maybe she likes dolls, and I should be gentle with her,” shares Dr. Korb. “Those are my own preconceptions about gender and how I was socialized. Babies learn that because that's how we treat them.”
We start sharing those ideas about social roles almost immediately after our babies are born – and even before. We paint their nurseries with fairies or dinosaurs and dress them in sparkly tops or baseball caps so that others will know if they’re boys or girls. “Socialization starts to be shaped really early – and often in subconscious ways and how we interact with the baby,” explains Dr. Korb. “We treat babies differently when we think that they are a girl versus when we think that they are a boy, and part of that is our own socialization process.”
Our kids start learning gender stereotypes based largely on social cues, internalizing them from their earliest moments. Their clothes, toys, and favorite games all send messages, and our household dynamics and the roles we play as moms and dads send messages, too. “Kids can start to integrate gender stereotypes from a fairly young age,” says child psychologist Dr. David Hong. “They start to have ideas about what men and women do differently. Even if it's not explicit, kids are constantly picking up and internalizing the things that they observe.”
Why are gender stereotypes harmful?
Traditional gender roles aren’t inherently negative, but gender stereotypes can affect our kids in negative ways by excluding anyone who stretches the boundaries or doesn’t fit neatly into the established categories – like working moms, stay-at-home dads, or same sex parents. When our kids are exposed to these ideas at impressionable ages, it can make them feel limited in the options they have for self-expression. If they don’t see anything that counters those messages, they may feel pressure to conform to these ideas of gender before they’re even able to explore and discover who they are.
It turns out that these limitations and restrictions can be damaging to our children. The most recent research conducted in 2016 and 2017 found that the endorsement of gender norms – especially stereotypes – is very closely linked to poor adolescent sexual and reproductive and other health related outcomes. That means that if we rigidly enforce our gender expectations – forbidding boys to paint their nails or teaching girls to be dainty – it can increase the risk of poor adjustment, low self-esteem, and other mental and physical health problems as kids get older.
Of course, it’s perfectly okay to allow our children to explore these gender stereotypes for themselves. If a girl wants to wear dresses or a boy loves playing in the dirt, that’s fine! It’s when these stereotypes put limitations or restrictions on our children and direct them to stay in their own gender lanes that they can interfere with our kids’ freedom to explore – and isolate anyone who may fall outside or in between gender categories.
It can be unnerving to realize how significantly our own deep-seated ideas about gender affect our kids, but the good news is that we can unravel these gender stereotypes with our children. While we’ll influence how our kids see gender the same way our parents influenced us, it doesn’t mean that we’re destined to push them in one direction or another. We can let our kids enjoy what they enjoy and accept it, being supportive and understanding as they figure out who they are.
We’re not going to ruin our children by giving into gender stereotypes, but our understanding of those preconceptions will shapes our kids’ understanding of the world. By becoming aware of these stereotypes and how we learned them, we’re better able to support our kids in exploring, questioning, and even challenging what gender is. Then, we can give them the tools to break free of those gender stereotypes that make them feel limited or ashamed.
Want to learn more about “The Gender Journey?” Start your path to a solid parenting foundation in just 10 minutes a day. Check out the HelloJoey app.