Beginning in infancy, we start receiving messages about gender, and what kinds of behaviors our culture deems appropriate for boys and girls. These messages are communicated by everyone from family members to educators to the media we consume, and whether explicit or implicit, deeply impact how we think about ourselves and others.
That’s why building an understanding of gender socialization and the impact of gender roles is foundational to our work with students on gender, healthy relationships, and consent. We know that a rigid adherence to gender norms has negative impacts on adolescent mental health and wellbeing, and can get in the way of meaningful and vulnerable relationships with their peers. Helping kids recognize the messages they receive about gender and how they affect people understand themselves and others, is the first step in supporting their ability to build healthy relationships and practice consent.
In our workshops, we do an activity called the “Gender Snowball,” which you can see a sample of above. During the “Gender Snowball” students are asked to answer questions about the messages they receive about gender from their families, and how they’re impacted. Students crumple up their responses into “snowballs” and place them in a basket, and draw a new “snowball” to read aloud and reflect on. In our sample, we’ve collected some of the responses we received in a recent workshop series with upper school students.
As you can see, the students we work with have a range of experiences with gender socialization – some feel supported by those messages because their gender expression conforms to more traditional norms; others feel like they’re receiving messages that are based on stereotypes that they don’t relate to. Regardless, they’re hearing from adults, peers, and the media what’s okay and what’s not, and for some those messages feel rigid and alienating.
How can parents and educators support youth in developing healthy and authentic gender identities? The first step is self-examination – what attitudes about gender do you hold, and what are they based on? How do they impact how you talk to your children or what you encourage them to do? Once you’ve gained some perspective on how rigidly (or not!) you adhere to traditional gender roles, turn your focus to your relationship with your children. One of the best ways you can combat rigid gender norms is by engaging in positive, supportive communication with your children. When you affirm your children you’re letting them know that you love them for who they are, even if who they are doesn’t fit into a narrow conception of boy or girl. Lastly, you can start calling attention to the gendered messages your children are encountering – if you’re watching a show together where all the people with power are male, or spot them reading a magazine article that says girls need to play hard to get if they want to date, talk about it! You’ll help your children recognize and question the messages they’re receiving that they may be taking for granted.