Are Traditional Gender Roles For Kids "Bad"? Experts Say It's Complicated

Ad failed to load

When we were kids, the value and validity of gender roles wasn't a big topic of conversation when it came to parenting — it was just assumed. Though there were exceptions, by and large our parents didn't worry about whether the toys we played with, for example, sent the wrong messages about men and women. Things have changed, however. Today the issues of equality, tolerance, misogyny, and power are weighing heavily on everyone's minds, and the expectations once placed on humans based on their sex are fading. Correspondingly, the question of how to handle gender roles in kids has become a topic of much debate. That's why we chose to focus on this complicated subject for the first episode of our Bearing the Motherload video series, in which two parents with different takes on the same issue sit down with a mediator and listen to each other's perspectives, while also getting input from experts.

While plenty of parents out there are grateful for our society's slow shift toward tolerance and what it means for their kids, others worry that the blurring of rigid gender divisions is too confusing for their children and will somehow damage them. Case in point: The social media meltdown that occurred when Sarah Michelle Gellar recently got matching manicures with her son Rocky.

Ad failed to load

While many fans loved the idea, other commenters were outraged, going so far as to accuse Gellar of "brainwashing" Rocky. Many of these negative reactions, one would assume, are based in beliefs that parents were raised on themselves. Experts, however, say their resulting concerns aren't backed up by science; in fact, enforcing gender roles can do more harm than good to kids.

"Research has shown that gender-divided activities are harmful for kids because they create and strengthen gender stereotypes," Dr. Christia Spears Brown, a development psychologist who appears in the episode, tells Romper.

"When we divide by gender, this sends the message to children that gender is extremely important," Dr. Brown, who is the author of Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue, continues. "Otherwise, we wouldn’t always use it to categorize people. Children then take it an extra step and assume, if gender is really important, then the differences must be innate, inevitable, and unchangeable."

Ad failed to load
Giphy

As Dr. Brown points out, this might not seem like a big deal when you're talking about preferring trucks to baby dolls. But if kids believe that gender is so important that boys and girls need different toys and activities, then it's not a huge leap for them to believe everything about boys and girls must be different (including things like math, science, and leadership abilities).

It makes sense: These ideas seep into our consciousness in such a subtle (yet unrelenting) way that we don't even realize our entire way of thinking is being impacted. That's not to say, of course, that exposing your kids to traditionally gendered activities and the like is necessarily going to damage them.

Ad failed to load

"Having gender divided activities and their impact on a child’s development depends largely on the relationship between the parent and child, and moreover the parent’s acceptance or rejection of their child’s gender expression," the episode's other expert, Meredith Shirey, MS, LMFT, tells Romper.

Giphy

"For example, are 'father-daughter' dances harmful to a cisgender female child and her cisgender male father? Probably not. However, if a child born female but identifying as male is forced to go to such an event, and wear clothing and act in ways that are inconsistent with the child’s gender expression, it could be potentially harmful to the child," she explains. It's not too difficult to put one and two together: If a child is forced to conform to a stereotypical gender-based uniform — or anything for that matter — that makes them feel completely uncomfortable, how could they not have an adverse reaction?

Ad failed to load

Shirey goes on to describe the long-term effects this can have on a child's self-esteem and overall mental well-being: "The rate of serious mental health issues (specifically self-injurious behaviors and suicide) among LGBTQ children, teens, and young adults is staggering. Most suicides from this population stem from pervasive feelings of internalized shame and rejection, mostly from caregivers and immediate family that do not accept the child as they are."

So basically (as with all the other parenting stuff), how you handle this should depend on your kid.

In some cases, traditional gender roles can actually be positive. For example, the concepts are easy for little ones to wrap their heads around. When children are very young, Shirey says, they don't yet have the ability to make abstract distinctions (they way adults do).

Ad failed to load

"Children may not be able to understand the complexities of gender expression versus biological sex, and tend to categorize their world in very simplistic ways," she says. "Parents who choose to take a more gender-neutral approach to child-rearing must keep their children’s developmental and cognitive abilities in mind."

If dressing all in glittery pink is your daughter's thing or your son is genuinely obsessed with football and superheroes, that's cool — it's all about following your kid's lead and embracing it.

The goal isn't so much "gender neutral" as it is "gender irrelevant," Dr. Brown explains.

Ad failed to load
Giphy

"Instead focus on the traits, skills, and qualities all people should have — empathy, nurturance, mechanical skills, assertiveness, hand-eye coordination, emotional awareness. They shouldn’t be male or female traits, but human traits." And interestingly, one of the best toys to teach children — boys and girls — a universal trait like nurturing is a doll, which we all know is typically pegged as a "girl" toy.

"Focusing on these universal qualities, and ignoring which gender is 'supposed' to be good at each, is only associated with advantages and no disadvantages," concludes Dr. Brown.

Ad failed to load

And of course, children learn best by example. So even if we don't always agree on the best way to approach this particular aspect of child-rearing (or any other), we should always try to be respectful of other peoples' parenting styles. Tolerance begins at home.

Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.

Ad failed to load
Must Reads

Being A Dog Parent Prepared Me For Having A Baby, Really

I’ve always wanted kids; I was never as sure about raising a puppy. Then I spent six months living with someone who brought home an eight-week-old golden retriever puppy, and I see no way to make it out of that experience claiming not to love dogs. I…
By Heather Caplan

20 Of The Most Popular Unisex Names Of All Time, That You'll Be Hearing More Of For Sure

You might think of unisex names as a fairly recent trend, but the truth is these versatile monikers have been commonly used throughout history (well, some more commonly than others). That's why the team over at Names.org recently compiled a list of t…
By Jacqueline Burt Cote

How To Have A Date Night With No Babysitter, Because It's Easier Than You Think

After having children, many couples feel that their love lives immediately go out the window, but it's so important to make your romantic life a priority so both you and your partner can be the best versions of yourselves you can be. As we all know, …
By Abi Berwager Schreier

9 Ways Baby No. 3 Made My Family Feel Complete

My husband and I decided to have another baby right after we got married and, well, we had no idea what we were getting into. I got pregnant right away, endured a high-risk pregnancy, and, before I knew it, my third baby had arrived. Together, we emb…
By Steph Montgomery

8 Stereotypes About New Dads That Are *Totally* True

Much like new mothers, new fathers have a lot on their plate. Parenting can be scary and complex, especially at first and regardless of your gender. People want to do right by their kids, after all. And since all new parents are a hot mess, dads are …
By Priscilla Blossom

8 Differences Between Being Pregnant In Your 20s Vs 30s, According To Science

Whether you're planning a pregnancy, or just thinking about your future family, it's typical to think about things like child-spacing, how many kids you want, and when to start trying to conceive. When making your pro/con list, you might also conside…
By Steph Montgomery

16 Moms Share Remedies For Their Most Intense Chocolate Cravings During Pregnancy

For better or worse, pregnancy is usually synonymous with odd cravings. Sure, there are the stereotypical combos like pickles and ice cream that plague gestating women the world over, but there are other mind-boggling combinations, too, including but…
By Candace Ganger

Putting Sunscreen On Your Kid Doesn't Have To Be A Fight — Here's How To Do It

I am almost translucent, so me and sunscreen are basically besties at this point. Even though my children are beautifully deep brown thanks to my husband's genetics, I still slather them like biscuits being buttered because I refuse to take risks wit…
By Cat Bowen

7 Things A Mom Really Means When She Says She Doesn't Want Anything On Mother's Day

Every year my family asks me what I want for Mother's Day, and every single year I tell them the same thing: Nothing. So, by now, they know that when I say "nothing" I absolutely do not mean "nothing." In fact, there are more than a few things a mom …
By Candace Ganger

19 Moms Share The Way They Cured Their Pregnancy Comfort Food Cravings

I was obnoxiously sick during the first trimester with, "lucky" for me, both of my pregnancies. For the first three months I lived on saltines, lemonade, and fresh bread. Once I was able to eat, however, all I wanted was savory and sweet comfort food…
By Dina Leygerman

8 Fascinating Facts About Babies Born In May, The Luckiest Month Of All

The height of all things fresh and springy, May is an excellent month to have a baby. It's a time of growth, graduations, and outdoor celebrations. And these fascinating facts about May babies will give you more reasons than ever to appreciate childr…
By Lindsay E. Mack

I Used To Judge Formula-Feeding Moms — Until I Became One

The other patrons in the hip Brooklyn restaurant probably couldn’t care less what I was feeding my baby, but I’ll always remember the shame I felt as I quickly mixed up his bottle of formula in front of them. I admitted to my childless friend that I …
By Katherine Martinelli

7 White Lies It’s Necessary To Tell To Keep Your Relationship Healthy

Telling lots of lies typically isn't associated with a healthy, strong, lasting relationship, and that's still certainly true, but not all lies are exactly the same. Though you've probably heard from someone at least once or twice that the lie they t…
By Lauren Schumacker

The Skinny Jeans That Saved Me Postpartum

Accepting my post-pregnancy body is hands-down one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It’s something that I still work on every single day. During my first pregnancy, I was 20 years old, so I managed to bounce back quickly. In fact, I dropp…
By Allison Cooper

7 Ways Your Baby Is Trying To Say They Feel Safe

In those first weeks of new motherhood, it can feel like you need an interpreter for your newborn. With their limited means of communication, figuring out what message your baby is trying to get across to you can be a challenge. With time, however, y…
By Kimmie Fink

Here's Why Dogs Are Obsessed With Babies' Poop, According To Science

Most family dogs seem to understand babies, and they're more than happy to make friends with the newest member of the pack. It's adorable... for the most part and until you go to change your little one's diaper. Suddenly, you're wondering why dogs ar…
By Lindsay E. Mack

6 Signs You're Meant To Have A Big Age Gap Between Kids

There's a five year age difference between my two children, to the day. Their age gap wasn't planned but, for a variety of reasons, works well for our family. And since I was so focused on having a second baby, I totally overlooked the signs that wou…
By Candace Ganger

13 Unique (& Totally Not Mainstream) Mother's Day Gifts For The Hipster Mom

Hipsters thrive on being outside the norm and not really digging anything considered "mainstream." Whether it's in their fashion, what music they listen to, the books they read, or how they enjoy beverages, there's just something that makes them dist…
By Abi Berwager Schreier

Here's How To Introduce Your Pet To Your Baby & Make Everything As Calm As Possible

Our home, which we lovingly refer to as “the funny farm,” is filled with four-legged family members. We have two crazy beagles and two cat jerks, and boy are they loved and spoiled. (As they should be.) But we are now finally having a baby of our own…
By Abi Berwager Schreier

Here's The Right Birth Method For You, According To Your Zodiac Sign

If you're pregnant, you've probably given childbirth some serious thought. Some moms-to-be prepare a meticulous birth plan, while others are comfortable just going with the flow. And me? Well, I made a plan... but that plan was useless when faced wit…
By Steph Montgomery

My Dog Knew I Was Pregnant Before My Family Did

Growing up, I was 100 percent sure I'd be a mom one day. To a dog, that is. My baby plans came later. And once my husband and I were sure we wanted both a dog and a baby, we'd add to our joint dog-and-baby name list over Sunday brunch or on date nigh…
By Melissa Mills
)}