Sexism isn't always blatantly obvious. In fact, lowkey sexism lurks all around us and penetrates many aspects of parenting. I'm sure I've inadvertently done and said some sexist things around my children, simply because I'm so used to society's standards for gender roles and toxic masculinity. I'm careful, of course, but every day I learn something new. Still, sexist stereotypes are so ingrained in our lives that it's no wonder there are so many things parents do every day that perpetuate sexism. Some of these seem so benign and so silly that it's often difficult to step back and realize those things are, in fact, significantly problematic.
My daughter is 8 and my son is 3. When my son was born, all we had in the house were traditionally "girl" toys. My daughter had some superhero dress-up clothes and a few athletic toys, but overall she really enjoyed her Barbies and dollhouses. We didn't buy my son any toys, though, because we didn't see the need for it when his sister had so many he could play with. His choice of toy was her Barbie convertible. He would take her dolls and stuffed animals, stuff them all into the convertible, and drive it around the house. No one forced him to choose the car, either. He just did. From the beginning, before he even went out into the world, he was drawn to cars.
When it comes to gender, my children identify with their sex in the "traditional" sense, which means it is my job to be extra diligent in teaching them how to function in this world without being sexist. I don't ever want to hear my son tell a girl to smile because she will "look so much prettier." And, I don't ever want my daughter to not respect a man because he doesn't hold back his tears when he feels overwhelmed. I want my kids to function outside of these sexist ideals.
Raising respectful and non-sexist children is probably almost impossible in a society where sexism is so deeply-ingrained. But just because it may seem like an impossible feat, doesn't mean we shouldn't all try. At the very least, as parents, we should do our best to avoid doing the following:
When They Disproportionally Comment On Appearances
Parents often compliment their daughter's appearances without acknowledging other impressive aspects of their daughter's personality. It's totally fine to tell your daughter she is beautiful (it's even necessary), but parents should also be telling their daughters they are smart, hardworking, strong, intelligent, and other things in addition to their physical appearance. Commenting on looks alone makes girls believe their looks matter over everything else, not to mention fosters a negative relationship with their bodies.
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders and project Dying to be Barbie, "four out of five 10-year-olds say that they're afraid of being fat. 42 percent of girls in first through third grade wish they were thinner. And, half of girls aged 9 or 10 claim that they feel better about themselves when they're dieting." Listen, I think my daughter is beautiful and I tell her that often enough, but I do my best to sprinkle in all sorts of complements about her as a person.
When They Enroll Kids In Gender Traditional Activities
When I signed up my daughter for jujitsu, my grandmother told me I shouldn't sign her up for such "dangerous" activities and, instead, enroll her into dancing or art. She said my daughter should do, "you know, activities for girls." I do not subscribe to the notion of "activities for girls," so I politely told my grandmother to mind her own business and that girls can do whatever they want to do.
Enrolling boys and girls in gender-specific activities may be tempting, but it once again forces children into boxes. According to the Women's Sports Foundation, girls who participate in sports have better grades, healthier body image, and are less likely to be depressed. Furthermore, research conducted by The University of Sydney, titled "The 1000 Norms Project" found "no statistical difference in the capabilities of girls and boys until high-school age (commonly age 12)." Therefore, boys and girls should play and compete in gender-mixed sports until at least the age of 12. The more boys and girls play together, the more they see each other as friends and allies, rather than different.
When They Purchase "Gender Specific" Toys
Just walk through the aisles at the toy store and tell me toys aren't gendered. The "girl section" (and yes, they are separated) is a pink and purple nightmare, complete with toy kitchens, pretend-play cleaning supplies, baby dolls, princesses, and dollhouses. The "boy section" is a motor vehicle overdose. Superheroes, trucks and cars, train tables, and sports equipment are everywhere. The problem with gender-specific toys go beyond sexism even, separating toys by gender can actually negatively impact development. Megan Fulcher, associate professor of psychology at Washington and Lee University, asserts that playing with "masculine toys is associated with large motor development and spatial skills" and playing "with feminine toys is associated with fine motor development, language development and social skills."
If we are limiting our children's toys we are limiting their development. And, I mean, are we not sick of these stereotypes yet? My daughter plays with cars and trains as much as my son plays with dolls and kitchens. A toy is a toy, people.
When They Model Sexism At Home
Even if you and your partner enjoy the "traditional" chores at home (e.g. women cook dinner and do laundry while men take out the trash and mow the lawn), maybe switch it up once in a while. My husband and I are pretty equal in our chores around the house and I know our children notice. If your children see that mom does only this and dad does only that, they'll quickly learn that some work is for "women only" and other work is for "men only."
Parents are some of the most influential models of gender roles for their children and overwhelming research suggests that "the strongest influence on gender role development seems to occur within the family setting, with parents passing on, both overtly and covertly, their own beliefs about gender."
When They Read Fairytales
Fairytales are the worst. Back in college I wrote my thesis on "sexism in fairy tales" and let me tell you something: if you want to know why our society isn't changing, you'll find your answer in the literature young children are exposed to from the very beginning of their lives. Most fairytales involve dead mothers and damsels waiting to be saved by a dashing prince. Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a social studies expert at the University of Melbourne, says that "fairytales have long been in the crosshairs of feminists who have considered the presentations to reiterate antiquated stereotypes" because fairytales contain numerous sexist tropes, such as "women being saved by men, women's value being attached to how beautiful they are, and old women being witches."
When They Accept The Gender Double Standard
Double standards are everywhere. They are in our language and in our schools. Parents who just accept the strict anti-female dress codes in schools are inadvertently accepting the very public shaming of their daughters' bodies. "More than half of the nation’s public schools have dress codes, frequently with gender-specific guidelines," according to the Education Commission of the States, and most of those "codes" are extremely archaic. Girls are expected to dress in a way that does not "distract" boys, which is ludicrous, and yet no one is discussing the incredible double standard that these dress codes create.
When They Set Different Behavioral Expectations For Boys Vs Girls
If you ignore your son's misbehavior or if you dismiss his tactics as "boys will be boys," you are perpetuating sexism. According to Psychology Today, "the expression 'boys will be boys' attempts to explain away aggressive behaviors that a small number of children exhibit by linking it with 'natural' or 'biological' impulses, without examining other reasons for the aggression" and "teaches children that certain behaviors are endemic to masculinity and exclusive to boys only."
Same concept can be applied to telling girls to be "ladylike" or to "act like a lady." Telling girls to remain "ladylike" pretty much controls their actions and shames them into conforming to some antiquated archetype.
If you tell your daughter to be quiet and be polite but you don't tell your son the same, you are perpetuating sexism. If you force your daughter to cover up and never teach your son to respect girls, you are perpetuating sexism.
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