I grew up with two older sisters. In high school, I was the only boy in my class at a performing arts program with seventeen girls. My college, New School, boasts a 71% female student body. I’m a manny. So I’ve been around women. A lot.
It’s no secret that women have a tougher ascent to gain respect in the face of objectification, the wage gap, and playing against millenniums of stereotypes. While I believe everyone should support women’s equality, following are three practical applications I use to teach children that lesson.
“Don’t tell girls they can be anything they want when they grow up. Because it would have never occurred to them that they couldn’t.” –Sarah Silverman
Or as I might say, “If you don’t build them, they won’t come… to think of them.” “Them” being harmful stereotypes.
Encourage your children to freely explore their interests and to try new things. My sister, Sara, played soccer, volleyball, and rugby, and was always a more natural athlete than I. I, on the other hand, was a drama kid, sang in choir, and owned tap shoes in high school. Although obsolete labels might presume the opposite, the dichotomy ended up making us both more well-rounded people because we were able to learn from each other. Today, Sara works in the fashion industry where she regularly dominates her company’s sports pools. And while I still enjoy improv, theatre, and the arts, I try to channel Sara’s tenacity on the lacrosse field.
So if your son wants to do gymnastics or your daughter wants to play on the football team, don’t just let them do those things—don’t flinch and just support them.
I usually carry around a messenger bag. It’s an easy target for jokes.
“Is that your purse?” asked one of my ward’s classmates at pick-up.
“It’s a messenger bag,” I responded.
“It looks like a purse… like you’re a girl.”
“Well, call it want you want, I just need a bag to keep my lipstick and pocketbook in.”
Kids say the darndest things, including name calling and teasing. While no one likes feeling insulted, it took me years to figure out the best way to defuse verbal attacks is to play along. That approach, and the lack of reaction, can also help break down stereotypes. If a child says that I’m doing something feminine or calls out something as being “girly,” I play along. “HEY! That’s DOCTOR ‘Mrs. Stinkybottom’ to YOU! I didn’t go through eight years at medical school for nothing. I am a respectable woman!”
Some men find any comparison to women threatening. But I believe that the best way for boys to learn that there is no shame in being called a girl is by observing our response—or lack thereof—to those taunts.
Not Just a Pretty Face
Why do so many girls aspire to be a princess but never the queen? Better still, why don’t they fantasize about becoming the president or other positions of power that have to be earned?
A princess is doted upon and pampered. If a girl has only been complemented for being cute, and has been served as though she’s helpless, then that treatment will shape her identity.
To help break that cycle of thinking, I like to point to females—in real life when possible—who are totally badass! Consider (Princess) Leia in Star Wars who rescues Han from Jabba and helps lead the attack on Endor. Kacy Catanzaro recently became the first woman to complete the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course. Those women are role models for strength of body and of spirit.
And the same approach should also be used with boys.
Sometimes, Ulysses and I are watching some Disney show and he’ll ask, “Who do you like better: Bree from Lab Rats or Jessie?”
“I like Bree ‘cause she’s strong,” I answer.
“Tori from Victorious or Cat from Sam & Cat?”
“Tori, definitely. She’s artistic and sweet and Cat is just stupid.”
Some guys go for the vapid, pretty girls—including the male characters in these shows—so I want Ulysses to see that women have a myriad of other appealing qualities. If I talk with him about a woman I’m dating, I list her physical beauty in the middle of the many other things I like about her.
I posted this on Facebook about two months ago:I was trying to be funny. First of all, I’m a hairy gentleman who would look very silly in such an outfit. I’m inviting you to laugh with me should I choose to wear a one-piece halter-top. Secondly, I want to poke fun at the bathing-suit season fitness craze because I believe it promotes negative body issues. I intended comedy. My aunt thought so and played into it. My sarcastic friend on the other hand, who I know is very passionate about redefining gender roles, was offended.
I felt badly about it. Was I being ignorant and sexist? Was I being insensitive to gender equality?
I’ve since forgiven myself for this transgression but it was a useful reminder to be more cognizant of the messages I could be sending. And that’s a lesson we can all stand to learn, and keep learning.
We can choose to fight the current, tread water, or ride the waves of progress toward equality. Giving our children a non-biased perspective on gender can go a long way toward ending misconceived stereotypes. And in so doing, we will give all children the opportunity to develop on a level playing field.