My early parenting experiences were sometimes hard. I had a son who liked to play with dolls and dress up as a princess and I didn’t know if that was okay. I’ve learned a lot since then, and today I’m sharing some of what I’ve learned about the impact of gender boxes on children.

As early as two years of age, children learn that there are different rules for boys and girls that they are expected to follow. They learn by the example that is set by parents, caregivers and siblings. They learn by how they are treated. Parents and caregivers treat male and female children very differently from an early age. For example, it is common to praise girls for being pretty, call them names like “princess” and tell boys to toughen up and stop crying.

As parents and caregivers, one of our biggest challenges is learning the difference between healthy expectations for our children and those that aren’t so healthy. One of the most unhealthy things we can do is pressure our children to “act like a boy” or “act like a girl.” We may do this consciously or unconsciously by encouraging or limiting behaviors, toys, playmates, games, activities, clothes, relationships, or self-expression. We may also react harshly and punish children who do something that is against the gender rules.

In spite of our best intentions, we may be harming our children by consciously or unconsciously pressuring them to fit into a “gender box.”

5 Ways Gender Boxes Harm Children

In spite of our best intentions, we may be harming our children by consciously or unconsciously pressuring them to fit into “gender boxes”. This may damage their emotional and social development and limit their learning and career opportunities in the following ways:

  1. Sense of Safety. Children need to feel that they are in a safe environment to learn and grow. If they sense that they will be criticized, punished or rejected if they don’t follow gender rules, they will live in fear. Only about one in four gender expansive children (children who don’t fit conventional ideas about gender) feel supported by their families.
  2. Self-esteem. Pressure to measure up to expectations based on gender is bad for children’s self esteem. Children may think that there is something wrong with them if they don’t fit gender stereotypes. They may suppress parts of themselves, or put on a false front or “mask”,  to appear more like “real boys” or “real girls.” This takes a toll on children of all gender identities. Those who don’t fit into gender boxes have it especially hard.
  3. Identity development.  If children get the message that there is something wrong with them, they have a much harder time developing healthy identities. This is true for any child who doesn’t fit the stereotypes for their gender, like girls labeled “tomboys” and boys labeled “cissies.” It especially tough for transgender children, because claiming their identities goes against gender expectations from family and society. Lesbian, gay and bisexual children also have difficulty coming to terms with their identity because one of the foremost gender rules is an expectation that we date and marry people of the opposite sex.
  4. Social/emotional skills. Gender pressures limit children in developing a full range of social skills. For example, girls are discouraged from being strong, confident, assertive and independent. Boys are discouraged from showing emotion, asking for support and being nurturing. Children who feel a need to prove themselves often do so by bullying others who are different. 
  5. Opportunities and Career Aspirations. Children’s opportunities to learn, develop and pursue careers are limited by gender boxes. For example, girls often lose confidence in their math abilities and are discouraged from pursuing careers in math and science. Women often end up in lower paying jobs as a result. Young boys are more likely to be steered towards sports and careers that are considered traditionally male. 

What We Can Do About It

Show children that gender doesn’t need to limit the work we do, what we learn,  or how we play.

Children’s experiences from an early age, especially with parents and caregivers, have a huge impact on their growth and development. So, it’s important to provide safe and nurturing environments for them from the very beginning. This will make it easier for all children to explore their likes and dislikes and develop good social skills and healthy identities. Here are some things that parents, caregivers and other caring people can do:

  1. Educate yourself about gender. Get the information and support you need to reflect on and clarify your own values. If you have fears or concerns about your child’s gender expression or identity, seek information to help you address those concerns.
  2. Set an example in the home. Show children that gender doesn’t need to limit the work we do, what we learn, or how we play. Share responsibility for things like laundry, taking out the trash, fixing things and cooking. Do activities with your children so they see that many things are possible, regardless of gender.
  3. Allow children freedom to explore. Provide your child with a range of options for activity, dress and play. Be supportive of your child’s interests, whether or not they fit the gender stereotypes.
  4. Encourage flexible thinking about gender. Read books that show children and adults in a variety of roles. Here is a great list of suggested reading. Discuss gender stereotyping and help your child build tools to navigate pressures they will face related to gender.
  5. Avoid making assumptions about your child’s gender identity or sexual orientation. Allow children the freedom to explore and discover their own identities without fear of rejection. Listen to your children without judging them and let them know you are there to support them.
  6.  Advocate for safe supportive environments. Communicate with family members, teachers and other people in your children’s lives to ensure that there are no put downs based on gender and that children are supported to be themselves.

About Laurin Mayeno and Out Proud Families.

Sources:

Five Ways to Reduce Gender Stereotyping in Children

How Negative Expectancies and Attitudes Undermine Females’ Math Confidence and Performance:  A Review of the Literature 

Parental Influence on Children’s Socialization to Gender Roles

Supporting and Caring for Our Gender Expansive Youth: Lessons from the Human Rights Campaign’s Youth Survey

Why Does Gender Matter? Counteracting Stereotypes with Young Children