Craig and Marc Kielburger founded Free The Children and Me to We. Their biweekly Brain Storm column taps experts and readers for solutions to social issues.
If your little girl loves pink dresses and dolls, is she destined to become a nurse or teacher, never an astronaut or engineer? What about your boy in blue who digs toy trucks – does this mean he won't learn to cook or do laundry?
These are the questions that rattle around in today's parents' heads as we fret that our kids may have fallen into conventional gender traps, despite our best parenting efforts. As father (and uncle) to toddler Lily-Rose, we want strong, confident daughters who value their brains not their beauty; and gentle, compassionate sons who see and treat others' daughters as equals. These worthy aspirations may just hinge on a toddler's favourite toy and colour – or do they?
Two fascinating studies suggest there is indeed a biological basis for gender-based toy preference. Given a choice, male monkeys tended to pick traditionally masculine toys, like cars and balls, while females preferred plush toys and cooking pots. (These experiments were evidently conducted before the advent of the pink toy gun.)
But even if we accept some nature in how our children understand gender – and that they may be similar to monkeys – there remains a fundamental role for nurture. A defining research paper by American early childhood expert Susan Witt found that "children learn at a very early age what it means to be a boy or a girl in our society. This is something we experienced growing up in a household where we watched our dad cook, bake and clean, and our mom handle the finances and most projects that involved a hammer.
Today, more and more dads and moms are breaking down gender conventions, and some are going to extremes, like the Toronto family who made global headlines by choosing to raise their third child, Storm, without telling anyone the tot's sex.
Few of us would have the inclination or commitment to keep our child's gender a secret, but how do we pass on positive gender values to our children besides dressing our sons in pink and urging our daughters to play cars?
This week's question: How can parents sidestep teaching gender stereotypes to our children?
Andrew Scott Baron, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia
"Be aware of implicit biases that unintentionally shape children's gender perspective. When your son comes home and comments on meeting a girl, it might seem harmless to ask if she was pretty. But it transmits that idea that appearance is a particularly meaningful property of being female rather than qualities like personality or intelligence."
May Friedman, co-editor of Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender Fluid Parenting Practices
"Use any opportunity to have an open conversation about gender, diversity and inclusivity. When my son first put on a beige Band-Aid, he said 'I get it! This is supposed to match my skin!' This led to a conversation about Band-Aid colours, whom they're meant to include and whom they leave out. Do the same with the gender biases you encounter together every day."
Fiona J. Green, professor of women's and gender studies, University of Winnipeg
"Don't freak out when your son chooses pink or your daughter like trucks. Rather, respond with loving support to what children are interested in wearing and playing with, and how they want to express themselves. Be sure to offer an array of gendered choices."
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