How do our kids learn about how men and women behave? In part, by watching us, but they pick up ideas from outside the home too, attitudes and stereotypes that we might not agree with.
Like last night my son told my wife about a sorting game that he enjoys playing at school, in which fruits and vegetables get separated into different baskets, and boys’ clothes and girls’ clothes stacked in different drawers. What’s the difference between “boys’ clothes” and “girls’ clothes,” my wife asked him. He said the boys wear pants that are blue and shirts that are green, while girls wear pink dresses. She explained that she didn’t have any pink dresses, while he owns a pair of pink crocs, and she also wears blue jeans. “Oh yeah,” he admitted. “But I like playing the game anyway.”
That’s fine, I think, because sometimes at home he pretends to be a princess with a crown, in a dress. He sees his mom working in the garden in scuffed-up jeans and tee-shirts, getting her hands dirty without complaint, while I don an apron to wash dishes or make dinner. My wife and I don’t hold to stereotypical gender roles — she’s the breadwinner, working full-time, while I’ve been the stay-at-home dad for the past 5 years — and so even though restrictive ideas about gender sometimes slip in, they’ve yet to take hold in my son’s head, and hopefully they won’t. Actively resisting such stereotypes is a part of our family’s culture.
The CBC reports that a recent study by the University of British Columbia shows that the family’s culture is key to a child’s development of gender identity. For mothers, the correlation is direct: How a mother talks about gender equality is basically how her children will speak about gender equality. For fathers, that wasn’t the case, at least not when there’s a daughter in the picture. When it comes to dads and little girls, actions speak louder than words.
The study, which looked at 326 children aged seven to 13, found that if a man was seen performing a greater share of the cooking, cleaning, and childcare — chores traditionally performed by women — then his daughter was less likely to say she wanted to pursue a stereotypical female career such as teaching or staying-at-home with her kids. Instead, his daughter would aspire to professional, white-collar jobs such as being a doctor or a lawyer. Keep in mind that this doesn’t indicate what the girls will actually grow up to do; that’s not what it’s about. Rather, it shows that the dad’s behavior around the home affects the girl’s ambition.
Interestingly, there was no perceived effect on boys, who aspired to gender-stereotypical careers no matter what role their father played in the house. I’d be curious to know what little boys who have stay-at-home dads would say. My son models himself on me all the time, so if I’m vacuuming he wants to vacuum, or if I like kicking around a soccer ball (which I do) then he will too. When asked what he wants to be when he grows up, he says a writer and a dad, like me.
As I’ve written before, toys can impact how kids perceive gender as well. If your children have no female action figures to play with, then they’re going to develop ideas that all heroes are boys. There’s good news from LEGO on this front. LEGO announced that their next Ideas set will feature women in science — an astronomer, a paleontologist, and a chemist. This set won a voting competition over ones based on the TV shows Sherlock and Adventure Time, and the video game The Legend of Zelda. The set will be called LEGO Research Institute, and is based on the belief that, as the designer of the set Alatariel Elensar wrote in her proposal, “Girls can become anything they want.”
Indeed they can, but sadly, our children need reminding. So keep talk actively about gender in your house! Discuss how men and women can be anything they want to be, especially if you find your children coming home with ideas that say otherwise. Encourage them to play with all kinds of toys, and make sure that they have both men and women figures to pretend with. And, most importantly, I think, show them that men and women both have roles to play both in the house, and in the workplace. Split the housework as much as possible. It’s my hope that someday news of women action figures won’t be news at all, it’ll just be the norm.