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Guys and Dolls

Gender stereotypes in children

Parents must refute gender stereotypes

As a self-declared modern feminist, I will be the first to tout the powers of sisterhood. As a girl who played flag football during recess and roomed with boys in college, I also have witnessed the importance of a strong brotherhood. However, while being proud of your gender is part of feeling secure and confident, having too much of your identity tied to how you should act as a girl or a boy can be both confusing and damaging for developing children.

How often have we read about young men having trouble expressing emotions or young women giving up on math and science? Though we have come a long way from the Barbie that squeaked, “Math is hard,” our children still are bombarded with messages about what their behavior and mannerisms should be. As parents, we can combat gender stereotypes and nurture our children’s individual traits – whatever they might be.

Demand an end to the toy segregation: Recently one of the largest toy companies in the country updated their stores by taking a step back in time. Rather than having aisles simply labeled as “Cars” or “Games,” there are now two sections where boys and girls are segregated to their stereotypical interests – rockets and robots for boys, kitchen sets and babies for girls. Many fast food restaurants second the notion that girls don’t want to play with action figures by asking every parent that orders a kid’s meal whether the meal is for a boy or girl. I admit it’s difficult not to get annoyed while explaining through a speaker box that, though my kid is a girl, she wants the dinosaur instead of the lame lip gloss. But it must be done. Teach your child that she has options and encourage her to consider a variety of toys and hobbies.

Shake things up a bit: We never know what children will be interested in until we give things a try, but all too often it never occurs to us to invite our daughters to help build the new mailbox or to ask our sons to give us a hand in the kitchen. Every once in a while take the opportunity to place a tool or gadget into the tiny hands of your curious child for the sole purpose of seeing if he enjoys it. Sure he may end up not liking it, but he will always remember that you gave him the opportunity to try something new without judgment or mockery.

Resist a lazy color palette: This trend starts with babies because, quite frankly, how else are we going to avoid several awkward conversations about the gender of our lovely new bundles of joy? However, advertisers and product manufacturers have gotten wise to the idea that pink sells to girls and blue sells to boys and they are running with it. Make sure that quality remains your top priority when making any purchase and help your child see past the superficial nature of color. Forego buying a pink laptop if it does not have the speed and memory of the blue one and encourage a savvy selection of, say, a durable backpack even if it does have the coolest colors. Just be ready to compromise on things a bit by allowing your child to personalize the item with stickers or paint.

Watch what your children are watching: Unfortunately it is not enough to just trust a brand these days, as so many of them have let us down in one way or another. Even something as harmless as a Sesame Street segment or a SpongeBob episode can contain material that should be discussed with your child to avoid misinterpretations. Pay close attention to insults that are aimed at a character – even in jest – where he or she is teased because of gender. Also, preemptively take opportunities to identify characters that embody a stereotype with which you disagree. Both London from Disney’s Suite Life and the iconic Fred Flintstone spring to mind here.

Be aware of the stereotypes in your own home: It is so easy to joke around and demand that your husband fix the car because he’s a man or let a comment slip that guys are worthless at dressing themselves. While we know we’re only teasing, listening children pick up on those conversations and take them at face value, possibly dashing the hopes of a future Danica Patrick or Michael Kors. Make a conscious effort to monitor these types of statements and, when you or a family member make an innocent slip, rescue the situation with an explanation that it is only a joke and that boys and girls can do anything.

It’s perfectly okay if your little boy owns five million model cars and your little girl wants to paint everything Pepto pink. It’s our job as role models, however, to make sure that they make those decisions on their own and that all of the amazing facets of their blooming personalities shine through with pride.

Shawna Vercher is a talk show host, media strategist and proud mom. Find her on Facebook at and join her in conversation.

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