This is the 21st century and as the old television and magazine commercial from many years ago indicates, ‘we’ve come a long way, baby.’ Well… maybe not! It seems that although we want to believe we have made tremendous strides when it comes to stereotyping the sexes, we may not have come as far as we think we have. Perhaps nowhere can this be more proven than when it comes to the everyday subtle or not-so-subtle instructions we give our own children.
We may not want to face it, but it is true. Many of us still, even in 2015 carry some pretty sexist thoughts, especially when it comes to the roles that we expect our children to carry on. Not only are they unsupported and quite stereotypically outdated, they may actually be harmful in a personal way. One book that tackles ways to parent children in a gender-free way is Christia Spears Brown Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes. Below is a list of 10 everyday things we are guilty of telling our sons, even though we shouldn’t along with strategies for how to send a more stereotype-free message.
1. Boys don’t cry
This one tops the list. Not only is it incorrect and sexist, it is unhealthy. Evidence continues to pile up in study after study that links physical illness with repression of emotions. These negative physical symptoms and ailments most definitely do not show any preference for genders. Crying is a very healthy and appropriate way to release some deeper and more intense sadness, fear and grief and it harms everybody, including our beloved sons, if we instill inhibitions for crying in them.
2. Don’t act like a girl
Although similar to telling our sons not to cry, this is much wider in its scope and much more clearly separates behaviors into gender-type categories. We should be grateful that we no longer live in a time when there are some powerful societies that do not hold to any fast and steady rules for what girls and boys are supposed to do throughout their lives. Once again, we can call on professionals in the field of mental health profession to back up that there is no harm in young children choosing one activity over another. Girls who play in dirt don’t turn out to be more aggressive later in life. Similarly, if our sons prefer creativity or more domestic activities than ‘traditional’ male interests, there is absolutely no cause for alarm.
3. Grow up to be just like daddy
Sorry if this sounds a bit harsh on fathers, but there are other models in the lives of our sons who may very well be more appropriate than daddy. Many of us are fortunate to know both men and women who are highly successful and just all-around great people. There are some dads that choose not to play a significantly positive role in their son’s lives. The emphasis should not be on creating a little mini version of dad or any other person, for that matter, but rather to encourage them the choice to be their unique and individual selves.
4. If anybody starts a fight with you, you need to know how to fight back
Two wrongs do not make a right. While none of us wants to see our children taken advantage of in any way, instilling the need to raise up hands to fight, even in the case of self-defense in a school-yard brawl, may not be the best advice parents can give their young boys. There is absolutely no shame in choosing to talk things out rather than resorting to aggression as a defense. There is absolutely no shame in teaching problem resolution skills before we each how to throw a hook or an uppercut.
5. Boys have to be tough
Not necessarily. There is something quite appealing about vulnerability which can be seen as the opposite of being tough. There is a lot of courage in vulnerability. Although we still see a lot of the stereotypical behaviors and reactions, there are those that already realize that some vulnerability brings people closer together to one another. Teaching our sons that it is okay to be human and not have to feel the pressure of pretending to be the “rock” is a good choice.
6. Boys don’t have to express their feelings
Yikes! Communication is gaining more and more recognition and significance in successful relationships all the time. We don’t have to go far to see it in the workplace as well as in our personal lives. Learning to express feelings openly and appropriately is one of the most valuable things we can learn if we are to share our lives with others in a meaningful and purposeful way. By giving our sons an easy way out and letting them think it is not something they have to work on, we are doing much more harm than good.
7. Boys will be boys
This may be true, but if it is, perhaps it is because of poor advice that we provide them with. Boys will actually be men, and it is not a good idea to continue to permit behaviors based on a preconceived notion of acceptance that is grounded in someone’s gender. When we let our sons know that we already hold strong, preconceived notions, such as indicated by expressions such as this, we are setting the mold for them and preventing them from being themselves.
8. All girls want is a rich man
There are many problems with this type of thinking. First, we are not helping raise children when we speak in absolutes such as “all” or “only.” It is that type of thinking that perpetuates stereotypical thinking and keeps us apart rather than brings us together. While there may be some women looking for a man to support them, there also are women who are looking for the exact opposite, a man who will help them further their own careers. It is a good idea to think about where, as a child, you yourself developed this type of thinking and rethink whether you still truly believe the negative advice you are spewing. Perhaps you will find that you have outgrown some of these negative gender images yourself and that even you don’t feel they apply.
9. More is better
We live in a world that is highly materialistic even though times may be rough economically. By teaching our sons that a man’s value is measured by his financial wealth, we devalue other characteristics and qualities that ought not go unnoticed. While it is important to teach our children how to become independent and contribute to society, it is important to help them see value in things other than money and objects. Nobody has proven that the one with the most toys wins. In fact, some of the world’s most important people are not known for their wealth and materialism, but their philanthropy and altruism.
10. Look for a cute girl
Just like there are many other qualities to a man than toughness and being the breadwinner, there are many things that can make a person attractive other than looking like a Hollywood star or Barbie doll. It is important to help our sons learn what qualities and characteristics they personally find attractive such as a someone good in sports or a great listener or maybe even one who is smart or clever when it comes to academics. Letting our sons decide for themselves what type of person they find themselves attractive to is a wonderful gift we can give them.
By teaching our sons that people are people – that it is more important to focus in on our similarities rather than our differences, we not only become better people individually, but when the time is right for us to partner with others in different aspects of our lives, we are better prepared to do so.