Fighting Gender Stereotypes: Why my Children’s Genitals Have No Effect on my Parenting Style

Oh, he’s so handsome! How old is he? I love his little shoes! Does he like trucks?

Thank you! I think my toddler is pretty darn cute too…just recently turned one and is rocking these teal moccasins, right?…LOVES trucks!

And to be clear, she’s a girl.

Let me start off by saying that it doesn’t bother me that people often mistake my daughter for a boy–at least not for the reasons you might think. She’s not even the first child of mine to confuse (and subsequently embarrass) old ladies in the grocery store. Her sister was called a boy until she turned three and her hair grew to a length that I was finally able to pull it back out of her eyes. I realize that these strangers don’t mean any harm. They are simply looking at my child for clues as to how to address her (a pink bow? Pierced ears? Frills on the shoulders of her t-shirt?), and I’m not helping them out.

They want to know whether to comment on my child’s strength and determination, or big brown eyes and petite frame. They are trying to decide whether she’s strong-willed or bossy, confident or chatty, reserved or shy.

Because that is the problem. People don’t just want to know whether to use he or she in reference to my child. They’re not just looking to use the correct pronoun. They want to know whether to comment on my child’s strength and determination, or big brown eyes and petite frame. They are trying to decide whether she’s strong-willed or bossy, confident or chatty, reserved or shy. Perhaps without even realizing it, they are deciding which stereotypes they are going to perpetuate without knowing my child at all. These gender rules of dress and behaviour are so ingrained in our society that people don’t even question their significance or their effects. It bothers me when children, both boys and girls, are limited in their ability to explore, learn or express themselves because it doesn’t fit in with what they’re told they should be.

So what are some ways we try to avoid these stereotypes in our house? How are we trying to give our kids the best possible start in a world that will throw insults at them their whole lives?

We try our best to buy gender-neutral clothing.

When we shop for our children, we mostly choose clothes that are comfortable and reasonably priced. We want them to be able to move around, explore and get messy without us worrying about rips, tears and stains. We avoid clothes that will generally get in the way of this goal, or that have obviously gendered pictures or phrases on them. I can say with confidence that my daughters will never wear a shirt that says “Daddy’s Little Princess” on it.  Ever.

We choose toys that are stimulating and open-ended, not bathed in pink and purple or bedazzled.

Building blocks, art supplies and books are some of our favourite toys. We also love trains and cars, our kitchen set, dress up clothes and simple dolls. Basically, if our child can learn from a toy and it encourages the use of imagination, it’s a win for us. You won’t find Disney princesses, pretend make-up kits, or pink Lego sets in our toy bins. It might sound cruel, but we also don’t keep any gifts that are, in our opinion, offensive and sexist.

We watch our language–because it matters.

We try very hard to catch ourselves before we use language that perpetuates any stereotypes. Sometimes it’s easy; we would never tell our daughters to “behave like ladies,” nor suggest that they like to rock their baby dolls because they are girls. I cringe when I hear my sister say her son is “such a boy” as though that explains everything about his character. Other times, it’s a little trickier, like when I catch myself calling my daughter a “big girl.” Seems innocent, right? But the constant referencing of sex does nothing but reinforce the division between male and female.

I understand that, in many ways, I am going against the grain with my parenting style. It hasn’t always been easy making these choices for our family and we do make mistakes. Like most parents, my husband and I have spent countless hours mulling over the benefits and drawbacks of some of our decisions. We’ve had to field many questions and have often been criticized and berated, mostly by “helpful” family members concerned that we might be inviting ridicule and bullying.

But these choices feel right for our family, and I can already see some of the positive effects in my four year old. Will my children one day be exposed to all of this stuff I’m trying to shelter them from? Yes, of course.  In a few short months my oldest will start Kindergarten and so will begin my uphill battle with the stereotypes that prevail even amongst the educated. And as things come up, I’ll explain why we do what we do, and why it’s so important. It will be tough, but isn’t that the way with anything worthwhile?

Tammy Bravo-Eby

Tammy Bravo-Eby

Tammy Bravo-Eby is a teacher turned stay-at-home-mom who sometimes misses teaching and plays school with her kids to get it out of her system. She lives in Cambridge, Ontario with her husband, two young daughters, and her disgusting Miniature Schnauzer (whom she loves dearly). She loves coffee and thunderstorms, and is obsessed with the concept of hygge.