Gender

“You know, someday my son is not going to be interested in playing with your daughter anymore . . . it’s just what happens.” —Lisa, mom of two

“One of my son’s good girl friends started a new school this year—as a boy. The principal can’t decide which bathroom she/he should use.” —Erica, mom of two

Wow—kids today get lots of different messages about gender, some of them daunting for parents to think about addressing. But things aren’t really so different from when we were growing up. Many of our parents struggled with questions of what to tell us about male and female roles in the home, workplace, and society. Here are some tips on raising kids who have and show respect for the whole range of what it means to be a boy or girl, man or woman.

Tips for . . .

  • all parents
    • Girls in our culture generally have more freedom to try on traditionally masculine styles, attitudes, and activities. Be especially sensitive to allowing boys the same room to explore who they are.
    • You may not be comfortable thinking or talking about these issues, but your children need your extra effort and support if they struggle with issues of gender identification—in their friends or themselves. Your acceptance of all kinds of diversity provides a model of respect for your child.
    • parents with children ages birth to 5
    • Accept your child’s likes and dislikes for friends, clothes, activities, toys, and so on. They are natural and come from the heart.
    • When describing or talking about your child, focus on personality rather than on characteristics you deem “male” or “female.” A girl who is interested in cars, for example, is no more “all boy” than is a boy with the same curiosity.
    • Rather than having lots of stereotypically gender-specific toys around your home, encourage creative, imaginative play, and games that are gender neutral.
    • parents with children ages 6 to 9
    • Remember that your child’s interests and tastes are personal and are not a reflection on you or your parenting. If you can keep this in mind, you’ll avoid having your happiness or sense of well-being tied to your child’s behavior.
    • Read books together about strong, positive boy-girl friendships. Ask a librarian for suggestions.
    • Encourage both boys and girls to find active, physical activities they enjoy, whether competitive sports, recreational games, or something else.
    • parents with children ages 10 to 15
    • Your child’s sexual identity is forming at this age. T-shirts, clothing styles, and advertising all send messages that cannot be turned off. Be intentional about having conversations when you see the opportunity.
    • Let your children play around with identity by wearing different styles of clothing, hairdos, and jewelry without criticizing them (as long as their choices are appropriate for the situation).
    • Ask your children about ways that they or their friends are or have been stereotyped. Talk about what that feels like, what they think about it, and whether they’ve done it to others. There doesn’t have to be a specific point to your conversation other than to raise awareness of the ways we judge people based on characteristics such as gender.
    • Encourage your children to bring their friends of both genders to your home. Make it a welcoming and friendly environment so that they learn to have healthy friendships with both boys and girls.
    • parents with children ages 16 to 18
    • Be intentional about having frank conversations with your teens, however tricky the subject matter. Sometimes it helps to be engaged in a common project like raking, dishwashing, or folding the laundry as you talk.
    • Encourage your teens to find the styles that suit them, not those based on what anyone else thinks. They’ll appreciate the fact that you are encouraging their individuality and will be more likely to accept the boundaries and limitations that you do set (such as regarding personal behavior or body piercing).
  • Speak up if you hear your teens or their friends making disparaging remarks related to gender (such as “Geez, you look like such a girl in those pants,” or “Nice butch hair cut”). Let them know such comments can be very hurtful.

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