You’ve heard the lines on the playground as a kid: “Only boys play with trucks; only girls like dolls.” You’ve seen all the pink and blue in the baby section of every store. When it comes to parenting, one thing is clear: The gender binary is hard to avoid.
But that’s not helping anyone, Dr. Christia S. Brown, a developmental psychology professor at the University of Kentucky and the author of Parenting Beyond Blue and Pink, says. She notes the gender binary, the division of gender into only two, opposing categories (masculine or feminine) rather than acknowledging the broad spectrum of gender identities, hurts all kids: The gender binary gives kids who don’t fit neatly into it “the implicit and explicit message…that who they are is flawed or wrong,” which Brown calls damaging.
It’s harmful even if you have a very “gender stereotypical kid” (such as a boy who loves action figures and video games).
Start early (very early)
If you’re anticipating raising kids, Wilchins and Brown note that questions about your kid’s gender pop up way (way) before a kid enters your home. Often, news of an impending child triggers the same clawing question from family members, friends, and colleagues: Boy or girl? It’s an innocent question, but Brown maintains that you need to have a plan of action on how you’ll answer it — both for yourself and for others — before your kid enters your house.
Brown notes your approach depends on how far you want to go with respect to avoiding the gender binary while parenting. There are lots of available options.
Some parents will try to push back on any kind of gender categorization, perhaps refraining from using any pronouns for their kids or giving their kids gender neutral names, while others might still use gendered terms or pronouns but find ways to make gender as irrelevant as it can be within a gendered world, Brown says. “There’s a large range,” she points out of different parenting styles.
Depending on what you determine for your own family, it might make for some tricky conversations but Brown and Wilchins maintain that you need to convey to the people in your circle what your intentions are with respect to gender and gender stereotypes for your child.
Do you want them to refrain from calling your child a boy or a girl, or a granddaughter or a grandson, until your kid has communicated their gender? Convey this ahead of time, Wilchins notes.
But you might also want people to refrain from giving your daughter exclusively dolls and fake kitchen sets for gifts. Spell that out as well.
You know your own family best, Brown and Wilchins maintain, so you’ll probably know what will and won’t fly with them with respect to challenging gender stereotypes. Again, people often care about these labels, so you may get some pushback, or family members might not comply with your requests. Expect that, and realize that in plenty of cases, it might be a “choose your battles” situation.
Outside of communicating your choices with the people who might be interacting with your kids, you have a good amount of power at the start of your kid’s life, according to Wilchins and Brown.
You control the color you paint a room, the toys you keep in the house, and how you describe your own kids, for instance. Do so with an inclusive conception of gender in mind.
Wilchins notes that you may have subconsciously internalized a lot about gender roles and stereotypes, so the key is staying attentive in these mundane decisions: Do you need to stay in the pink baby section? Could toys around the house have more variety? Ask yourself these kinds of questions whenever possible.
Now, instead of controlling how you and other adults perpetuate gender stereotypes for your kid, you need to zero in on the tiny ways you talk about gender at home.
“We know kids pay attention to language, and they’re also attuned to gender markers in language,” Brown points out, noting that gender is totally saturated within our language, whether through the frequent use of pronouns (“That’s her cookie; That’s his car”) or through words like fireman or congresswoman.
Accordingly, it’s important to focus on your own word choices as your kids are first learning about language, words, and identities, Brown explains. All the emphasis on gender (and particularly the gender binary) in everyday language can make it seem like gender tells you everything you need to know about a person, Brown points out. What’s more, when gendered words like “salesman” are used, kids absorb messages about who can and cannot do what with respect to gender.
At least within your own home, you can control this as you reference family members, for instance. You might try using language that prioritizes the identity of individuals, rather than their gender: That’s Saanvi’s cookie; That’s Tim’s car.
Gendered terms, like congresswoman, could become congressperson; fireman could become firefighter.
Brown notes that another way to normalize gender neutral language can occur when reading children’s books aloud at home. Back when she did this with her kids, Brown removed references to the character’s gender whenever it wasn’t a necessary part of the story, which, she says, ended up being most of the time. The point here is to normalize that how someone looks or presents themselves to the world doesn’t necessarily correspond with their gender. For instance, in Curious George, the Man in the Yellow Hat became the Friend in the Yellow Hat. You might also try swapping the names of characters. Harold, of Harold and the Purple Crayon, could become Harriet; David, of No, David!, could become Danielle.
“It’s not that hard to find gender neutral terms,” Brown says.
Brown notes that it’s also important to have conversations with your kids about why you’re doing this. This will prepare them for when they start interacting with other kids more, whether cousins, kids on the playground, or classmates once they’ve started school (more on that below). Your kid might have questions about why certain characters have the names or pronouns they do when you read aloud in this way.
Anybody can wear a dress,” Brown says. Explain what gender is in the first place, and talk about the different ways people choose to express their own. (Here’s some useful info on talking to kids about gender.)
While a focus on language is particularly valuable before kids start school, the hope is that the lessons they learn stick with them for the rest of their lives.
3. Help them confront stereotypes encountered in the classroom
In your own household when kids are young, Wilchins and Brown maintain that you have a good amount of control over how gender is discussed. The biggest challenge, in terms of avoiding gender stereotypes, starts once your kid is school-aged, they point out. No matter what you try to do in their early years before formal schooling, it’s all but impossible that your kids are never going to encounter any mentions of the gender binary once school-aged.
“[Ages] zero to three [are] easier for parents,” Brown says. By preschool, however, Brown points out that due to developmental reasons, kids become really strong “gender stereotypers,” meaning they’re highly likely to think about and understand other people through solely gendered terms: “All boys like trucks; all girls like princesses.”
Classmates (or even teachers) might correct some of the lessons you tried to impart on your kids in their early years.
Think: Teachers saying “Good morning, boys and girls,” making students sit “boy-girl-boy-girl,” or single gender bathrooms.
Because of this, Brown notes that a kid raised in a gender neutral environment might stand out in a classroom where students are all grouping themselves and others based on how they perceive gender.
She says you should talk to your kids about this (both before they head off for school and while they’re in it) to help them practice things they can say to people who challenge their ideas about gender. “Check in with your kid a lot,” Brown says, to see how the gender binary is discussed and implicitly enforced at school.
Let’s say you switched the pronouns for Max, the main character in Where the Wild Things Are, every time you read it aloud at home. You might equip your kid with an explanation for classmates on why Max doesn’t need to be a boy for the story to work.
Or maybe you used the term “firefighter” at home, but your kid’s classmate is insistent that the term is fireman because only men are strong and courageous enough to fight fire and they’ve never seen a woman firefighter before. Prepare your kid with responses about how jobs don’t correspond to gender, and why it’s wrong to assume that people have limited abilities because of their gender.
If any problem comes up that you think school officials need to consider, Brown notes that contacting them as a group, as opposed to as a lone parent, can help convey it’s something that a lot of parents are concerned about.
4. Identify and challenge stereotypes they’ve picked up themselves
Gender stereotypes learned at school might travel home with your kids. If you notice them forming gendered assumptions, you can equip them with the tools to identify stereotypes so that they can stop normalizing them within themselves. That goes for kids of any age, whether elementary, middle, or high schoolers.
“The key is to not let any of it go,” Brown says of “all or none” thinking that young kids often use, like “only boys play video games” or “all girls like nail polish.” Particularly when kids are young, she notes that sometimes these “all or none” gendered assumptions can be totally nonsensical, pointing to an example she once heard a kid say: “Only boys like oysters.”
That’s obviously not true, but countering your kid’s thinking will take more than just saying a statement isn’t accurate. If you hear your kids make “all or none” statements, she stresses pushing back on it by using a concrete, familiar example.
Then, ask them why they thought this was true in the first place: Did they know Amanda liked oysters? Why did they think no women could ever like oysters? If they knew this about her, why didn’t they think about her experience?
The goal is to convey to your kid that statements of this kind obscure all of the fascinating, unique things that make people who they are, and that gender isn’t a predictor of any “all or none” behaviors.
She also suggests looking for unnecessary references to gender or gender stereotypes in the world around you, and then asking your kid what they think about it. An easy example is a trip to the store: Once, Brown says she saw “boys socks” and “girls socks” next to each other that were, in effect, the same socks in separate bins. Point something like that out to your kids and ask them about it: “I wonder why they make boy socks and girl socks,” Brown suggests asking. “It’s just clothes. Whoever is wearing the socks is just wearing clothes, [not boy or girl clothes].”
That holds true for tweens and teens: Brown recommends continuing conversations about gender stereotypes in ways that are relevant as kids start making their own decisions about what they wear, or what other activities they might engage in, such as dating or involvement with sports teams.
Sports teams, for instance, can be a breeding ground for toxic masculinity for boys because of a frequent emphasis on aggression and dominance.
Giving your kids the tools to notice and critique the gender binary and gender stereotypes when they pop up will hopefully last long after they’re out of your immediate domain, she notes. .