Every parent needs to think about gender so their children can thrive.
Thinking About Gender So Your Children Can Thrive
Expanding the messages we teach our children around gender norms and stereotypes can help them reach their full potential in life. No matter what gender a child is, gender messages impact how they feel about themselves, the kinds of opportunities they believe are open to them, and how they are treated by other people.
Messages about gender can either encourage children’s growth and exploration or limit what they believe they can like, wear, and achieve. For example, girls as young as six start to believe that specific activities are “not for them” simply because cultural messages lead them to believe that they are not as smart as boys. Bullying is also strongly associated with gender stereotypes, particularly when it comes to the targeting of boys who are perceived as “too feminine.”
Restrictive gender messages are like putting a child inside a small box. They might be able to move around a little in the box and may be able to survive in that box, but they certainly cannot stretch and grow, let alone thrive. Restrictions we place on children when they are young last throughout their lives. For example, economic research shows that the level of sexism in the state in which a woman is born has a lasting impact on her entire lifetime of earnings, even if she changes location later in life.
The particular messages your children receive about gender may vary depending upon many factors, including their family culture, race and ethnicity, geography, socioeconomic status, language, and faith traditions. For example, a 2018 study found that Black and Latino adolescents are more likely to have progressive attitudes about gender equality, but they’re also more likely to hear sexual comments from peers, and to feel pressure to be attractive or strong. Yet all gender-based messages can have lasting effects on children that parents need to examine.
If we can create space for our children to be free to define and express their own gender, no matter what that gender may be, we are giving our children the gift of breathing room to explore who they really are and thus reach their full potential as human beings.
All Children, Including Cisgender Children, are Harmed by Rigid Ideals of Masculinity and Femininity
Children are often treated differently based on their gender, even if unintentionally. This is not surprising, given the strong messages about gender that most adults learned growing up, and the strong gender messaging that still exists in society. A 2017 Pew Research Center study showed that the top trait perceived as valued by society in women is physical attractiveness while in men it is honesty.
Gender norms are evolving, but traditional ideas about femininity and masculinity still run strong in our society. We talk often about how toxic masculinity hurts women and girls, but we also need to focus on how incredibly harmful it is to boys and men. A 2019 study by the global nonprofit Promundo, “The Cost of the Man Box” showed that young men ages 18 to 30 continue to be told that “being a man” means using violence to resolve conflicts, refusing to seek help even if they need it, and sticking to rigid gender roles. It also confirmed that “young men who believe in the most restrictive ideas about manhood are consistently more likely to bully, binge drink, be in traffic accidents, harass, show signs of depression, and have considered suicide.”
Traditional feminine “ideals” are no less harmful to girls and women. A 2019 study found that women with stronger traditional gender role beliefs in adolescence attained lower levels of education in adulthood. When it comes to their bodies, children who identify as girls (both cisgender and transgender) said they did not feel equal to boys. A 2018 study found that about three-quarters of girls 14 to 19 feel judged as a sexual object or unsafe as a girl.