I am the mother of both a boy and a girl. They share the same birthday, five years apart, with my eldest being my 10-year-old daughter. Both kids are well-adjusted, kind and compassionate, and I think motherhood actually helped me combat gender stereotypes to make sure they continue to be authentic to their true, unapologetic selves. In today's world, a lot of us struggle to fight against pre-conceived perceptions and stereotypes. At least, I know I do. Because I'm a girl, I'm expected to be a wife and mother, sure, but I do those things while working hard at excelling in my chosen career, too. Because I'm a girl, I'm expected not to be as into sports or athletics as my partner or other men, but I'm a distance runner and X-Games and UFC enthusiast. Because I'm a girl, I'm expected to know how to do my hair and makeup, and to have a sense of style and fashion. Honestly, in my 34 years of live, I've really struggled to adapt to those norms.
Having two children of my own now, it's more important than ever I take a hard look at gender and the ways in which I might stereotype my children (or others) without realizing. Those learned concepts are ingrained in ways I honestly never thought about until I was confronted by them. The times we've given into traditional ideas for what boys "should do" and bought into what is "acceptable" for girls are few and far between these days, but they still linger. We're working on it as a culture, for sure, but for me it's part of an ongoing process that's teaching my children, and myself, how to be more compassionate and understanding to those unlike us; be it by gender, sexuality, religion, or whatever it is that could divide us.
Whatever it is, motherhood has helped me grow in tremendous ways; most notably, in fighting against traditional gender roles. Here are some of those ways, we're striving to grow in order to have a more unified house, and world.
It Forces Me To Re-Evaluate My Biases
Growing up in a (mostly) conservative family unit means I've had to confront foundational beliefs in order to not box my children into any specific role, place, or way of being. I think a lot of us are brought up on certain gender biases, depending on your circumstances — some of which we have to actively fight against the rest of our lives in order to inspire the next generation to evolve into something even better. In terms of my youth, typical gender role were explained and expected, such as what girls should "act" like, what emotions boy "should" feel, and so on.
To counteract these things in my own house, I've practiced stepping back from what I've been taught in order to develop my own thoughts, opinions, and feelings. I'm challenged every day, but it's important. If my son wants to wear his sister's necklace or hat, I let him. If my daughter wants to wrestle or practice math so she can run a company someday over the old-fashioned and outdated expectations of learning how to cook or sew, I applaud her.
Checking biases at the door is a choice every day and while not always easy, I see the benefits in how my children behave. The freedom is written all over their little faces. They know they don't have to fit any norm society puts on them, as long as they're happy within. A gender-neutral environment has proven to be a great exercise in living the change we truly wish to see in the world. My kids are proof.
I Ask My Kids To Challenge Stereotypes
Stereotypes are everywhere we look. From TV to school, there's almost no escaping the way others perceive us to be. I do my best to teach my children we don't have to accept the way we're presented, or assumed. For instance, growing up, the question most often asked to me was about my ethnicity. Due to my dark golden skin and curly hair, I didn't fit the opposite mold of my family. It was assumed that I was a certain way, or should be a certain type, and for a long time it affected the way I saw the world (and myself). I don't want my children to feel that way, or to make other children feel that way either.
When we see problematic representation, stereotypes, or biases — such as how the media tells girls to care more about how they look rather than their grades — I open the conversation with my kids to see where they stand. If I didn't have them, I don't know I'd be thinking so deeply about it now.
"Boys Will Be Boys" Isn't A Real Thing
I grew up in an era where boys could get away with anything but gone are those days and thank goodness for that. This "boys will be boys" mentality is harmful to both girls and boys. If we don't check our son's attitudes about women at an early age, and continue checking as they grow into men, we're only going to breed demeaning, sexist, misogynistic behaviors that, to me, are unequivocally unacceptable.
I grew up with both a father and brother who looked down on women with their verbiage and, sometimes, actions. This set a dark tone as I went through my pre-pubescent years because the message taught me I was less than them, and never could be an equal. It was a lonely feeling to know people who loved me could also belittle me on a whim, because it made them feel better about themselves. Because of my experiences, I hold my children to a higher standard. The "boys will be boys" or "locker room talk" that only perpetuates rape culture, won't be tolerated in my house, and never will be.
I Use Expressive Speech With Both Children
I speak to my children the same, meaning, I communicate things with my son the same way I might with my daughter, even if, topically, it seems advanced. Kids are capable of a lot more than we give them credit for. In being forthright, using direct terms for body parts, expressing exact emotions, explaining things in the same details, I've found that my son understands completely. Not only that, he converses the same in return which shows me it's not necessary to "dumb" anything down or use simpler, more concise sentences to conform to his gender necessities.
While I realize there are some differences between boys and girls, how they learn, and so on, he's just as likely to surprise me with a bit of information I didn't realize he understood than his sister. Here, we all speak the same language and so far, it's helping me raise two really amazing kids.
Equality And Compassion Are Key
Part of the gender gap, I think, has to do with the way we love our children. I've always been a big fan of snuggles, no matter which child is near. I don't limit my kisses to just my daughter, just as I don't leave the high-fives and fist bumps for my son. In order to show empathy, I've learned how important it is for my children to learn compassion through equality. If each knows what the other's struggles are, and they live it, too, it's much easier to fuse the divide.
Just this week, my daughter was upset over having a toy taken from her (after she took one from my son first). The toy each child wanted was a gender-swapped version of something stereotypical: my son wanted the Barbie, while my daughter wanted the Lego Batman. I'm totally OK with whatever they play with but once there was a normal sibling struggle for power, it became less about gender and more about equality, if that makes sense. The only thing I could think to do was get out all the Barbies and all the Legos so we could all play together.
Soon after everyone felt better, apologies were exchanged and the toys became another non-issue (like most things between siblings that eventually pass). It's all in the way we handle our differences that end up bringing us together in the end.
Both Kids Play With All Toys
Much like stated above, we have a rule in our house that, while toys may belong to a child for awhile, they will eventually move to the "everyone's toys" section of the house. This includes "boy" toys like cars and sports-related stuff, as well as "girl" toys like dolls and play kitchen food to "cook" with. When my children are exposed to the opposite gender's stereotypical influences, it evokes the compassion I'm working so hard to instill. Say, if my son is able to play with my daughter's dolls (which he often does), he becomes more nurturing. I've witnessed him cradling the babies, taking care of them, and showing them the kindness I hope he'll show to others — especially girls.
Likewise, when my daughter plays with her brother's superhero toys, she's learning to be strong, independent, and brave. It inspires her to step outside everything society tells her to be; she learns how to stand her ground and more importantly, that she's genuinely interested in things not necessarily deemed "for girls." That is freaking awesome.
I Instill The Notion They Really Can Be Anything
Here's the thing: I don't want gender stereotypes to keep my children from chasing their dreams. I want them to work hard, follow their passions, and know that, regardless of their gender, sexuality, religion, or political association, they can do anything. If they can do that and they're genuinely happy and kind to others, I'll have conquered this "mom" thing like a damn boss.
It's not easy raising kids these days. With so many places and people telling them who to be, how to behave, who to love, or what to be interested in, I'm challenged at nearly every pass. As a feminist mom, I will never stop advocating on their behalf, and for that of the world around them. But at the end of the day, when I look over and see two kids who are doing great in school, they play well with others, and respect their parents and other adults, whatever my partner and I are doing must not be so bad. Hopefully, someday, they'll agree.