By Sarah Diaz, Research and Assessment Coordinator
My four year-old son’s favorite color is red. A few months ago, he found one of his sister’s red hair bows, and he excitedly put it in his hair. I thought he looked adorable, but after an hour or so, when we went to leave the house to go to a birthday party, I caught myself feeling uncomfortable – was it okay for a little boy to wear a hair bow out of the house? Would other kids tease him? Would he make the other parents uncomfortable?
This experience is one of countless examples of how gender norms start influencing our behaviors, even at an early age. My son was doing something that made him happy, and yet I felt the urge to stop him because I was concerned he wouldn’t fit people’s ideas of how a boy should dress. Children are born unique, with their own interests, likes, dislikes, and ways of expressing themselves. As they grow, however, our culture often pressures them to conform to the norms we associate with their genders – we have specific, ingrained ideas about how boys and girls should act, and we communicate them to kids in almost everything we do, whether it’s the toys we buy (dolls for girls, trucks for boys), the way we parent (“Stop crying! You’re a big boy.”), or the values we impart (praising girls for being pretty, praising boys for being tough).
For many years, these norms were thought of as harmless, or even natural. However, we now know that’s anything but the case. These harmful beliefs demand that gender is performed in limited and specific ways, and when they go unchecked, they can not only contribute to harmful behaviors towards others, but also result in riskier behaviors that have negative impacts on mental and physical health. For boys, this includes being extremely competitive, acting aggressively, and never showing signs of vulnerability for fear it is perceived as “weakness.” In contrast, girls are often taught to value relationships and others’ feelings, even at the expense of their own. Girls are expected to be agreeable and caring, while also competing with other girls to be the most attractive and desirable, which can lead to passive aggressive “mean girl” behavior, as girls try to sort out around the mixed messages they receive about how and who they should be.
Numerous studies have shown that these stereotypes are harmful for both genders – and isolating for those who fall outside of the binary. In fact, the American Psychological Association just released their first ever report on working with men and boys, discussing the many negative impacts of masculinity. These impacts range from the extreme – for example, men are more than four times as likely to die from suicide than women – to the more insidious, with researchers finding that the more men identify with masculine norms, the more likely they are to avoid eating vegetables or going to the doctor. For girls, the impacts are similarly far ranging, with researchers finding that girls who conform to gender stereotypes are at higher risk for depression and exposure to violence, among other negative outcomes.
These gender norms also contribute to the conditions that produce gender-based violence – young men who have learned that dominance and power are more important than care and concern, and who exert that power over young women who have been taught that their primary concern should be pleasing others. This is why understanding gender stereotypes and working toward more expansive ideas of gender are the cornerstone of Hallways’ gender and consent work. Helping young people, and the adults who support them, unlearn the harmful and limited ideas about gender that they’ve internalized helps create communities where being caring, assertive, empathetic, and respectful are valued no matter your gender identity. It’s through doing this foundational work that we can build the critical thinking skills that support adolescents in understanding the forces that shape their behaviors and begin to subvert them. By changing mindsets around gender, we can start to see and change harmful behavior, preventing the risky and sometimes violent behaviors associated with conforming to gender stereotypes – and supporting adolescents’ overall wellbeing and health.
Tips for Breaking Down Gender Stereotypes:
Examine your own biases! Most of us were raised in cultures that have fixed ideas about what’s appropriate for girls and what’s appropriate for boys. Be thoughtful about the gender stereotypes that you’ve internalized, so you can try to interrupt them in your relationships with young people.
Encourage your child or student to express themselves, especially when it violates the stereotypes for their gender. For example, if your son is feeling sad or lonely, let them know that their feelings are totally normal and encourage them to share. If your daughter is interested in taking a leadership position, like running for class office, support her desire to help make change even if it makes her feel vulnerable.
Talk to your child or student about the media that they’re consuming. Many of the messages about how to perform gender come not just from the people in a young person’s life, but also from the TV shows they’re watching and the books they’re reading. Talk about why the smart girl was portrayed as nerdier than the others in a movie, or why it might be troubling that the romantic lead in the novel they’re reading because he keeps pursuing the girl, even after she’s said she’s not interested.
Do you want more strategies for raising healthy children? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn about our presentations and workshops for parents and educators. We are here to help!