As a new mom, I assumed my children will never be exposed to gender stereotypes. The inequality in gender roles in India has been a flaming issue in my heart and I believed I shall never allow my children to pick up the traditional mindset of gender roles. Well, it took four years for me to realize that my children are after all born with the knowledge of half of the gender things I wanted to hide from them – yeah, embedded in their genes!
This post is a part of a series of posts on this blog on The Things that really matter to Children. Scroll to the bottom of this post to see the complete list of posts in the series.
G for Gender Identity and Roles: How Children perceive being a Boy or a Girl
In the first two years, children don’t show any signs of gender identity. By three, they probably understand that there are two different genders, yet they may not get fixed on one gender for themselves. For example, a 3-year old girl may assume she may grow moustache and beard like her dad when she grows big.
Between 3 and 5, as they begin school, as they begin to actively interact with their peers, they not only identify their genders, but also understand that it is not going to change for the rest of their lives. If you were to carefully follow a child’s emotions and expressions in this age, you will be able to find if there is a gender identity issue in the child. That is, a child biologically born as a girl but believes she is a boy, or wishes she were a boy or vice versa.
Studies say that the flexibility in their thinking of shifting between genders may come back to them again between 7-10 years of age, but that is out of scope in our discussion as we are talking about young children in this series.
So, getting back to my story, I made sure my little boy did not assign pink and blue to the genders, did not look at cooking as a woman’s thing and did not consider girls physically weaker than boys. I didn’t mind having a lot of pink-coloured baby stuff for him. I bought him a variety of kitchen toys. In fact, cooking was one of his first interesting playtimes. And we were very careful in not speaking about stereotypical gender things in front of him.
Now that he is almost six, I already see a young man in him. I mean, a typical boy! Last week, I asked him if he can take the pink bottle to the school because his other water bottle was unwashed. He straight away dismissed the idea because his friends in school might laugh at him if he carried something in pink 😯
Yesterday while his little sister was playing with the kitchen toys, she wanted an audience to have her toy dosas. I asked my boy if he can play with her and he replied he wasn’t a girl to do cooking plays 😯
One day, on a casual chat, I announced that I will be joining the dad and the son the next time they went for running, trekking or biking. And the boy immediately asked me if I was sure I can cope up with their energy levels 😯
Yes, what you try to cover up so much from happening, happens earlier and stronger than you can imagine!
Once upon a time, I had a condemning thought in my mind about the gender stereotyping that parents have infused in people of our generation. But in the course of my own parenting, I understand that gender roles are half imbibed through genes (research has proved it) and half from the influence of family, school and culture.
As a mom of a boy and a girl, it is interesting to observe how children perceive their genders. While my son made use of the syringe in the doctor set to fill petrol to his toy cars, my daughter uses the same syringe to apply lipstick to her doll. Neither was taught to them. Children either pick up their gender specific roles intuitively or sub-consciously from their environment.
Children’s very first perceptions on gender roles become obvious once they start school. In the first year of his schooling, I was told that my boy and a girl in his class were inseparable friends. They would miss each other even when one went to the restroom. In the second year, they were still friends when the school began, but by the end of the academic year, they hardly greeted each other. That is, between 4-5 years of age, children in his class began to play with other children of the same sex. Also, at the same age, the children gang of friends in our residential community split into the boys gang and the girls gang.
As a boy, to a child of 4+ years, what matters is energy and vigour. They want to get into dynamic plays like running and jumping. By the time they are five, it is even more fierce like in deep play. My son can be often seen in our park, either jumping from the topmost roof of the 10 feet tall outdoor playset or hanging upside down from the 7 feet tall monkey bar. In the last six months, there has never been a day when he has returned home without a bruise on his hands or legs. In fact, the boys in his class has a favourite brand and shape for a band-aid 😆 In short, they feel like a fantasy hero.
Girls on the other hand like to sit at one place to play. Not that I am after all trying to categorise children to their genders, but from my everyday observation of children in the park area, girls prefer to play games which are less dynamic than the boys. If you observe the playtime of girls of 4-7 years of age, you’ll agree what matters to them is learning to grow to responsible adults. They’ll like to cook and serve for the family, they’ll like to dress up their baby doll and they’ll want to go shopping to buy groceries while boys on the other side are doing ninja training or building a booby trap for their best friend or shooting the bad guy from behind the bush.
Of course, their perceptions are going to change with years. There is much scope in parenting and education to make boys understand it is alright for them to cook and make girls realize they are stronger sects of humans as well. I believe their generation is not going to see as much inequality in gender roles as our’s or our parents’. Beyond the heroism and stunts of my boy, I do see a tender and understanding side of him when he sees his mom tired after a long days’ work. Amidst the cooking and dolls plays of my girl, I do see a bold and daring version of her springing up when her brother tries to fight with her.
While it is still our responsibility to dissolve the stereotypes, when it comes to young children, it is beautiful to observe how their gender tends to matter to them, and often admirable.
If you have something to share about the topic, please leave a comment below. I love to hear from all of you.
List of posts in the Series