Raising children without perpetuating gender stereotypes

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If you are a parent or educator of a boy right now, you may well be thinking - how am I going to do this? How can I raise this boy into a man who not only is kind, respectful and a generally decent human but also has the courage to stand up and call out problematic behaviour and inequality?  

How we raise the next generation to make this world a kinder, fairer place is of paramount importance. The early years are when children develop an understanding of how the world operates and what is expected of them, so there really is no better time. It is never too early to start. From the moment they arrive in the world, (or even before, when people start asking “what are you having?” – answer “a baby”!) we need to ensure our boys are shown an alternative view of masculinity, where power is not linked to aggression and violence.  

Why does it matter?

For many reasons, including, but not limited to:

  • Significant research finds that challenging gender-stereotyped behaviour in early childhood can reduce violence against women and girls. (‘Unlimited Potential - Report of the Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood”, Fawcett Society, 2020)

Children may be bullied if they do not fit into what is stereotypically expected for their gender. 

  • We have seen this first-hand at Kidscape with many of the young people that access our service. 
  • The pressure on boys to fit into a narrow view of masculinity, which may include not talking openly about their emotions and being ‘macho’. This can lead to later issues with mental health.
  • Boys may choose to ‘sort out’ their problems with anger and violence rather than resolve them through talking. We know that boys are more likely to be excluded for bullying.

What can we do about it?

Here are some practical ideas you can use with your family, school or early years setting. This may seem like the ‘small stuff’ - but it all adds up to change the narrative:

  • Be conscious of the messages our children are receiving through the clothes, toys, books and media that we present to them 

Have a look at the toys in your home or setting. Are girls playing in the home corner with dolls and boys are playing with construction toys and dinosaurs? We may not immediately think of it, but the messages they may be receiving are that caring roles are not for boys and girls are no good at STEM subjects. Are we allowing them the same access to toys or are we presenting them with the toys we think they will choose because of their gender? Children will have preferences, but without realising it we may be narrowing their choice by not providing access to a wider range of toys.  

We need to try to resist the power of marketing companies who tell us that toys, books, clothes are for a particular gender. If we look at children’s clothes, we are likely to see cute, fluffy animals, (prey) and slogans such as “daddy’s little princess” being marketed to girls and dinosaurs, crocodiles, lions (predators) and slogans such as “mummy’s little soldier” being marketed to boys. As with toys, we can allow our children more freedom by not restricting their choices to just the ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ section of the store.

If we look at the books in our homes or settings, we may well see boys and men as the main characters and usually as the heroes or the villains, possibly solving problems with violence. Women and girls are likely to be underrepresented and portrayed in roles as mothers, or teachers, or in need of rescuing. If we come across books like this, use them as a discussion point for talking to children about gender stereotypes. We can also use books as an opportunity to discuss that we do not know somebody’s gender just by looking at them. 

We can also raise awareness of non-binary gender identities, explaining to children that some people do not feel like either ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ and other identities are equally acceptable.

  • Do we segregate children into ‘boys’ and girls’ when we are doing activities – lining up, playing sport etc?  

Could there be another way? When we speak about a group of children, we tend to classify them by their gender, making this a defining feature. Are there ways we can avoid this, perhaps by simply referring to them as ‘children’?

  • Language is important 

The subtle micro-messages that we send or the language we use can have an impact. For example, referring to young girls as ‘sweetie’, ‘darling’ or commenting on how they look while speaking to boys by saying ‘mate’ or making comments such as ‘I need a strong boy to help me with this’ can reinforce gender stereotypes.

  • Think about role models

Do you have males working in your setting? Do you revert to traditional gender roles at home? Are your children seeing men going out to work and women cooking and cleaning or are the household responsibilities more evenly balanced? Are you able to have a discussion with your partner about how to readdress the balance if needed? Recognising within this, that there may be significant barriers within society such as pay, access to paternity leave etc. If you work within an early years or education setting, how are you engaging with fathers? Do you make assumptions such as ‘didn’t mummy pack you a nice lunch?’ or always phoning the mother with queries, even if both parents are listed as contacts?

  • Be quick to intervene

Challenge behaviour or language that may be perpetuating gender stereotypes, such as “only boys can play this game”. Use these as a teaching opportunity. Be watchful for words or actions which may be used to tease or shame others for their gender expression, or any gender-based bullying.

  • Examine our own conditioning and beliefs about gender roles and gender expression

If we have grown up believing that pink is only for girls or that boys cannot be nurses or early years workers, it may influence how we feel if our boys want to wear pink or play dressing-up as Elsa. We need to feel comfortable to allow autonomy and freedom in how our children choose to express themselves and their gender. 

This may naturally change over time.

  • Play the ‘made-up rule’ game (adapted from Global Equality Collective | GEC (thegec.org)) with your child(ren). Read out a list of statements and your children can think about whether they are ‘real rules’ or ‘silly made-up rules’ which can be a starting point for some really interesting discussions.
    • You must wear your seatbelt in the car.
    • Only men can be doctors.
    • Pink is a colour that anyone can like.
    • Boys can’t dress up as princesses.
    • You should never take something from a shop that you haven’t paid for.
    • Women can be in the police force.
    • Girls are kinder than boys.
    • Brushing your teeth twice a day is really important.
    • Football is a game that anyone can play if they want to.
    • Playing with cars is just for boys.

At Kidscape, we aim for our services to be inclusive to all. For further reading on supporting respectful relationships, see Help your child respect others (kidscape.org.uk). If you are concerned that your child is in involved in a bullying situation and would like advice, please contact our Parent Advice Line Parent Advice Line (kidscape.org.uk).

Further information and resources:

By Kat Fuller, Parent Support Manager.


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