Thursday, 8 June 2017

Musings on Gender Stereotypes and Children

We're at a playgroup. Girl Child is 3. She is wearing a typically colourful outfit - blues, greens, reds. I look around and become aware that every other girl in the room is wearing pink. I wonder how long it'll be before Girl Child starts to notice these things too.

While being supremely confident in some ways, I've noticed that Girl Child is becoming more and more concerned about 'fitting in'. She's still a bit quirky, but while before she didn't notice her quirkiness, now she seems to be more conscious of it, and is trying to assimilate with her peers. Particularly her female peers.

I'm tucking Girl Child into bed. She's 4. She starts to talk about something that happened at nursery. There were bunny masks to wear. She wanted a blue one - her favourite colour. She says she was told she couldn't have one. Because, "blue is for boys and pink is for girls."

I tried to avoid gender stereotypes with her. And for three years, maybe longer, I succeeded. Then over time she started to notice. To hear things. To absorb things. And I wonder whether I took entirely the wrong approach. Because now I have a girl who knows deeply what she likes - the colour blue, football, fairies, dinosaurs, dressing up and space. But she's now learning that not all of those things are generally considered 'girls' things. And in her black-and-white view of the world, she doesn't quite know where she fits.

Girl Child is playing with her baby brother. She is 4. She puts a hairclip on his head. "This is what you would look like as a girl." She removes the hairclip. "This is what you look like as a boy." The hairclip is replaced - "girl" - and removed - "boy."

I try to point towards examples of women who share her not-typically-feminine interests. "My favourite colour is blue too," I say. "Rachel Yankey is a footballer. Look, Maddie's wearing a dinosaur top! There's an astronaut on the International Space Station who's a lady." But she's unimpressed. They're not little girls like her. She doesn't need common ground with them, she needs common ground with the other little girls she sees.

Girl Child's scooter breaks. She is 5. It was second hand and free. It also happened to be blue. When we're looking for a replacement she says, "I want to get a pink scooter." I'm surprised - blue is still her favourite colour, and she generally ranks pink as her "20th favourite". (Goodness knows what the 18 colours in between are.) "If I get a blue scooter, people will say it's a boy's scooter." I ask her if that matters. "Yes." I ask why. "Because I'm a girl." We get her a pink scooter. She points out the little bit of blue on it, as if to reassure herself.

Often conversations around gender stereotyping in children's toys and clothes elicit the argument, "well just buy what you want. Does it matter if it says it's for girls or boys?" And to me it doesn't. If I see a top or toy I think one of my kids would like I get it, regardless of which section it's in. But while it doesn't matter to me, an adult with a clear understanding of stereotypes, it does matter to my 5 year old daughter. She's not old enough to understand that gender is a nuanced thing, that women (and men) can have widely different tastes and interests. She just wants to be like the other girls around her. And when we go shopping and she sees girls' clothes in one area, boys' in another, princesses, fairies and Lego Friends down one aisle and dinosaurs, superheroes and regular Lego down another, what's she supposed to think?

Girl Child decides to stop going to her football class. There are various sensible reasons for this - she's one of the youngest and the smallest so it's hard for her to keep up, plus the class is on Thursday when she's already pretty tired from four days at school. But if you ask her why she doesn't want to go any more, her response is that she's the only girl. We talk about how she could join again when she's older. "Yes," she says, "because then I'll be as big as the others. And some more girls might have joined too."

I realise that this is a battle I can't fight alone. No parent can. We might be able to for a while but once childcare and school kicks in, once our kids are old enough to spot the norms, we're on the losing side. And of course, we want our kids to be happy, to not feel like the odd one out, so we go with the flow and hope that when they're older they'll have the resilience to do what they like and be who they want to be. Yet we know that by going with the flow we're reinforcing the norms. Making it harder for the next round of quirky kids. But what can we do?

We can keep buying things we know our kids will like regardless of where in the shop they came from. We can keep talking about the stereotypes and why they don't make sense. We can slowly start to talk to our kids about the roots of those stereotypes. We can hold retailers to account for perpetuating the Great Pink/Blue Divide. (Let Toys Be Toys and Let Clothes Be Clothes are doing a great job there.) And we can wait for the years to pass and for our kids to get a broader perspective, hoping that those years won't ingrain the norms too much.


  1. Oh it's so hard isn't it? It feels like a hopeless battle doesn't it! My daughter has made some of these remarks before too, but I've always stood firm and said she can like whatever she wants, - she made a comment once that liking dinosaurs was a boys thing but I challenged her about it to make her realise that it's not! I hope one day our kids can enjoy what the like without the fear of being judged.

    1. Yes I keep challenging her when she comes out with a sexist comment, but even with that she's changing to fit in. I wish I could give her the self-assurance she needs to just be herself and not care what other people say.

  2. Great post - my daughter's not yet two but I already get comments about her not wearing pink or having dinosaur 'boys' things... and how I loathe those pink and blue Kinder eggs, who wants a naff Barbie figure when you can have a Marvel Super hero?

    1. It's rubbish that it starts so early. Society seems so determined to sort our kids into little boxes, why can't we just let them be kids?