The challenges we families face
Some of us wonder (and worry) about the things we say and do as parents and how it might affect our children. Then there are the things our kids say, and other people say, that we know are 'problematic'… we just don’t know how to respond.
The questions and answers below aren’t a recipe or script to follow, or even perfect solutions – they're just suggestions on how to approach gender stereotypes that pop up in everyday family life.
This list will grow over time. if you have a question or dilemma we might be able to include. And remember, when and how you choose to challenge, retreat, counter quietly or watch and listen is up to you, and will be unique to your family and your situation.
The most important way to challenge gender stereotypes when your child asks that inevitable curly question is to have a response ready.
Try focusing on the similarities with a response like…
“Really? I’m pretty sure all kids like to kick balls/dress up sometimes, it just depends on what you feel like.”
Try downplaying the label…
“Oh, I don’t think that colour is for boys or girls – I think anyone can have that cup, it's just about which one you like better.”
Try having a conversation about the stereotype…
“That’s interesting, why do you think it’s for girls/boys, how can you tell?”
Challenge the stereotype…
“I can see why you think that, a lot of your friends wear/play/like the same things, but don’t you think it would be great if we could all use/wear/play with whatever we want? How about you pick any colour you want?”
“But boys and girls aren’t really that different, are they? I reckon we can all play however we want – imagine if we said that only boys or girls were allowed to eat chips – that wouldn't be very good, would it?!”
“But the cup/clothes/toys/games don’t know if you’re a boy or a girl – they want to play with everyone!”
Support the conversation with other conversations – talk about the stereotypes you see (both when they’re being challenged and when they’re not) in books and on TV, and try to find examples that challenge the stereotype.
Join the game and invite the excluded child(ren) – “I am going to play too, and I would like to bring my friend(s) – we’re going to join in.”
Try saying “Everybody loves this game, let’s make sure everyone can play” and/or “Remember our talk about boys and girls being equal, that means we can all play.”
Talk to your child later, at an appropriate moment – ask questions which might generate empathy.
“I wonder how they felt when they got told they couldn’t play?”
Try talking about exclusion using ‘stories’ from your own childhood, e.g. “I remember when I was little and some kids said I wasn’t allowed to sit with them because I was a girl/boy. It made me feel really sad and a little bit angry. I wish another kid had said something or the teacher helped. What could we say/do next time?“.
If your child says 'But boys are really rough' or 'But girls can’t play this...' talk to your child about stereotypes. Try something like, 'Actually, we all play in different ways depending on the game. If you'd like the other kids to play more calmly, how could you let them know?' or 'Why not? We can all learn any game, so let's think about how we can teach this game to all our friends'.
Notice and talk about characters on TV shows and in books who are being excluded for any reason, and draw comparisons.
We’re often less comfortable with boys crying than we are with girls. Do you notice you feel particularly anxious or nervous when your son cries in front of other people?
Talk about sadness, disappointment and fear with your son. Talk about characters in stories and movies that might have felt sad – teach him how to recognise emotions and express them in healthy ways by modelling, e.g. “I’m feeling sad, I’d really like a cuddle” or “I’m feeling a little bit worried, what about you? Let’s talk about things that are worrying us”.
Let your kids know that feelings are fine, but that some ways of expressing them aren’t fine. Talk about emotions by saying things like “Are you feeling ____ because you need _____?” or “I can see you are [add observable behaviour here], that might be because you are feeling [insert emotion here]. So try taking a breath to calm down and we can talk about it together.” This provides an opening in the conversation and time to talk.
We’re sometimes less comfortable with girls expressing anger than boys. Do you notice you feel particularly anxious or nervous when your daughter shows anger in front of other people?
Talk to her about anger, be warm and caring and try to understand the meaning behind the anger. Teach her how to express anger in healthy ways. Show all kids that having a range of difficult feelings is part of everyday life – talk about emotions when they are portrayed in media and in books.
Model expressing your emotions in healthy ways… “I'm feeling angry, I just need a minute to take a breath and calm down” or “I’m feeling a little cranky, I think I might be tired so I'll go to bed early.” or “Are you feeling ____ because you need _____?”
If you’re the dad and you’re up for it, respond with humour: “I WISH I was getting paid for this – no, these are my kids – I‘m just being a parent”, otherwise just a straight up "Hey? No, he's a great dad – he’s parenting.”
We've all heard these stereotypes: “Oh well, boys will be boys!” or “Girls are so quiet, you’re lucky”.
Let the family member know you’ve been looking at Because Why and are trying to challenge gender stereotypes with your children – you never know maybe they’ll start doing the same!
Or you could try, “Nah, I reckon kids are kids – we can all be quiet or boisterous sometimes…”
“I think sometimes we just notice boys being boisterous or girls being quiet because we expect to”
Or invoke memories…
“I remember when I was that age, I loved [insert something that challenges the stereotype here] - What about you?”
Or draw attention to the limitations…
“I remember that I was expected to be quiet when I was a kid, and I think it’s stopped me from feeling comfortable to speak up. I’m trying to let ____ know she can be quiet or boisterous or whatever she wants!”
“I remember that I was expected to be boisterous, strong and unemotional when I was a kid – I think it’s stopped me from being more reflective or thinking about my feelings. I’m trying to let ___ know that he can be quiet or boisterous or whatever he wants!”
If your child is around but you don’t want to challenge, just have a quiet conversation with them later… “Did you hear ____ talk about boys and girls today? That’s different to what we talk about, isn’t it? We talk about kids being kids, and that we can all be quiet and boisterous sometimes.”
Heard these before? “Wow, your boys are so quiet and well behaved!” or “Your girls are so boisterous – they’re like boys!”
You can start a conversation – try:
“Hmm, don’t you reckon kids are kids, and we can all be quiet sometimes and boisterous at others?”
“I think we just sometimes notice boys being boisterous or girls being quiet because we expect to”
Or invoke memories…
“I remember when I was that age – I was so into [insert something that challenges the stereotype here]. What about you?”
Or draw attention to the limitations…
“I remember I was expected to be quiet when I was a kid. I think it has stopped me from feeling comfortable to speak up. I’m trying to let ____ know she can be quiet or boisterous or whatever!”
Or “I remember that I was expected to be boisterous, strong and unemotional when I was a kid, I think it has stopped me from being more reflective or thinking about my feelings, I am trying to let ____ know he can be quiet or boisterous or whatever!”
Many of us find ourselves falling into roles within our families that can sometimes seem stereotypical of our gender. Mum might be the one who always organises childcare, or birthday parties, or knows when the household is about to run out of toilet paper. Dad might be the one to regularly mow the lawn, fix the broken bike, or clean out the shed.
Most of us were taught over our lifetimes, how to ‘be’ our gender in very traditional ways. We're also constrained by systems and social norms which are bigger and more powerful than we are – such as how and when it acceptable for us to access parental leave. We are further shaped by our surroundings, the places we live, our communities and the intersecting dimensions of race, class, gender, and sexuality.
But despite these challenges, we can still make changes in our family – we can start by:
- Seeing what our kids are seeing – if it is only men shovelling gravel in the driveway or women in the kitchen, try to get in there and lend a hand.
- At home, teach all kids to do everything – let your kids know that you were only taught certain things – and that you would like them to learn everything.
- Talk about the stereotypes and limitations while you are doing stuff. “I only do this because this is what I was taught – I want to make sure that you can do everything, so come watch me and learn.”
If you have more time and want to make larger changes, sit with your family and plan about what you want to do differently in your life.
You could start by taking a trip down memory lane, in your childhood,
- Who did what around the home or engaged in paid work?
- Who solved problems?
- Who helped you resolve conflicts?
- Who provided comfort when you were sad?
- Who disciplined you?
- Whose decision was final?
- Who played with you?
Now think about the present – who does those things now? How is it different to your childhood, and who do you want to be in your kids’ lives?
- What roles do you want to play, what do you want to do more of?
- What do you want to do differently?
- What do you feel like you are missing out on?
- What do you want your children to see?
Make a plan! And talk to your family about it.
This is a tricky one, firstly try not to let your apprehension show (easier said than done, right?). Remember, whether it’s putting on a princess dress or playing rough, kids explore stuff to learn. It’s us adults that invent judgments about their choices – not them.
So, make sure you’re feeling supportive, then consider how and where you can set up supportive environments for them. If your child goes to childcare, start a conversation with the educators, asking how they manage exclusion or teasing, and how they will proactively create an environment that’s supportive.
Do the same in playgroups, parties, gatherings with friends, family and other networks where your child might be. Be explicit about your support and try giving cues about how friends and family can provide their support.
It doesn’t have to be much – try throwing into a conversation “We’re all really excited that ____ is doing ____ now – we know it’s not ‘stereotypical’ so we’re really trying to show support by talking about it in a positive way.’
Or just send out a text like ‘Hey, ____ has started wearing ____/playing ____/is into ____ and is really excited about it – maybe you could chat about how great it is when you see us?
It can seem like your child's natural choice but gender stereotypes start influencing everyone's 'choices' from day one. Before they can even speak, babies are picking up on cues from everything and everyone around them, about who does what and how – boys or girls, men or women.
As children grow, stereotypes can mean kids feel less comfortable engaging with certain activities – for example, if all the boys are playing with trucks then other boys feel like dolls are a no-go zone. What children do or don't engage with then affects the skills and interests they develop, the way they represent themselves, even the ways they act and react in certain situations.
Being aware of the stereotypes we present to kids helps us see what they're learning about gender, and how that affects their thinking and learning.
As parents and carers we can make sure our girls and boys have a range of options and activities to choose from. It's certainly not about throwing out all the fairy tales, but about ensuring our children know that their choices are not limited by the colour of packaging.
It's really easy to default to using gendered language with our kids. It's all around us, so it's tough to even notice when we do it let alone drop it from our vocab!
We're thinking about how easily things like 'little man' and 'little lady' roll off the tongue. The risk is we teach our kids to define themselves first and foremost by their gender, and all the stereotypes wrapped up in that gender.
But if we mix it up a bit and allow our kids to see variation, we reduce limitations and create opportunities.
It's really never too early! Babies begin learning from day one as they interact with the world around them.
You can start challenging gender stereotypes no matter your kids' ages by thinking about what your hopes, expectations and dreams are for your children. Are you envisioning these things because 'that's what boys/girls do'? If so, maybe shake up your wish list a little. Make sure you are leaving room for your child to make their own choices.
You can mix up what your babies see and hear. Consider things like:
- Decorating their room with a range of colours, patterns and characters
- Having a range of toys from both the 'boys' aisle and the 'girls' aisle
- Reflecting on your own dreams for your child – are they linked to what we traditionally expect for girls and boys?
Yes! But moving kids away from 'girly' things is definitely a trap we can fall into when we challenge gender stereotypes. We need to be careful not to reinforce the idea that girly = bad.
There's a tendency for the world to place less value on feminine traits. Even the term 'girly' is often used as an insult.
The problem isn't the 'girly' things themselves – it's how our society undervalues them.
But our sons really need to see girly as good
found that parents aren’t so comfortable with boys doing traditionally feminine activities such as playing with dolls. But parents tend to be much more ok with girls doing traditionally masculine things.
Our research also showed that parents overwhelmingly want their kids to have equal opportunities, and as few limitations as possible.
So here are some tips for showing your sons that 'girly' is valuable:
- Let your sons cry it out
- Talk about sadness, fear and disappointment with your son
- Show your sons physical affection – hugs, kisses, hold hands
- Let boys choose things from the 'girls aisle' (hopefully fewer stores label their aisles by gender… but that’s a whole other topic!)
- Tell your sons you love them
- Dads and men: tell other people you love them in front of kids
- Stand up for 'girly' things – rock pink, celebrate the princess's bravery, praise caring behaviours
- Invite your sons to join in traditionally 'girly' activities – painting nails, craft, baking, caring for the baby doll
- Ask your son if he wants long or short hair, don't get it cut just because.
Want more? Have a read about why .
There's not necessarily anything wrong with reading a book that's full of gender stereotypes. But maybe try talking about the stereotypes when you notice them – ‘I wonder why Mum is always doing the cooking while Dad goes to work – really anyone can cook and anyone can work, can't they?’.
Or try mixing it up a bit – change the pronouns so that, for example, ‘She climbed to the top of the castle and rescued the princess…’. Or so that the babies in the book get '...tucked into bed by daddy bear’.