How important are gender roles in your family? Do you consider gender when you’re assigning household chores or determining disciplinary actions? How about when you’re helping your kids choose extracurricular activities? Do you have a strong gender-based preference about what toys your children play with or what clothes they wear, or does the world pretty much look like one big “gender neutral” option through your eyes?
Raising kids is an incredibly personal experience, and while we wouldn’t say there’s no wrong way to do it, there are certainly a whole lot of right ways. But it’s not all black and white (pink and blue?), is it? It might be easy to dismiss phrases like “boys will be boys” and “fight like a girl,” because it can feel uncomfortable to push back against established social expectations.
However, a recent study by the Journal of Adolescent Health suggests that exposure to rigid gender stereotypes during childhood may have severe negative effects during adolescence and adulthood ranging from increased school dropout rates to substance abuse and depression. So whether your views about gender lean more toward traditional or progressive, it’s probably a good idea to at least have an open dialogue about it.
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Ask yourself why
Even if you’re not intentionally perpetuating them, it can be easy to simply let stereotypical gender roles become the default. There are no rules that say women can’t mow the lawn, men can’t cook, little boys can’t take ballet lessons, or little girls can’t excel at math and science, but there is a tendency to associate those things with a specific gender because that’s just the way you’ve always seen it done.
We’re not suggesting that you should purposely avoid following gender norms. We just encourage you to ask yourself WHY you’re doing things the way you are. You may have really good reasons. If you have terrible allergies, and your husband doesn’t, that might be a good reason for him to mow the grass. If the meals you prepare would look right at home on the Food Network, but your partner has trouble making toast (despite his best efforts), that might be a good reason for you to do most of the cooking.
At any stage of life, making decisions based solely on gender can be (at best) limiting and (at worst) damaging, but it may be especially problematic during childhood. Letting your children follow the interests that correspond to their personality and aptitudes—regardless of their gender identity—gives them a great foundation from which to build a happier, healthier, more fulfilling life.
Update to the latest version of parenting
If you were lucky enough to have a happy childhood, there’s a good chance you might try to replicate it, or at least use it as some kind of benchmark. While it’s wonderful to draw inspiration from your own parents, it’s important to note that our kids are living in a different world than the one we grew up in, so doing a copy+paste of your own upbringing simply may not work.
The world our children know is shaped by technology and the instant access to information (and misinformation) it provides. It’s shaped by an increasingly diverse family structure that includes more single parents, blended families, and co-parenting arrangements. It’s shaped by the rapid rise of social media and the slow crumbling of social “norms.” It’s shaped by the #MeToo movement, and the Time’s Up movement, and a general decline in the silent acceptance of gender discrimination and sexual harassment. Today’s kids are watching the future unfold in hi-def, and chances are, they’re going to have questions.
For example, maybe your four-year-old son asks if he can wear a dress to preschool.
If you’re 100% opposed to that, consider giving him a more thoughtful response than, “No, boys don’t wear dresses.” There’s a good chance your child knows that isn’t always true. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea, try to find an age-appropriate way to explain why rather than just saying no.
On the flip side, if you’re totally fine with him wearing a dress, you may not want to just say, “Sure, honey!” and drop him off at school in a sparkly princess gown without first preparing him for the potential reactions he might encounter.
The goal here isn’t to overcomplicate anything, but simply to establish a culture of clear, mindful communication, between you and your children, you and your partner/co-parent, and ultimately, between your family and the rest of the world.
Define your own “normal”
If all this seems like a lot to process, that’s ok. It may feel like there are new standards for handling all things related to gender definition and identity, but when it comes down to it, it’s just about practicing respect, expanding opportunities, and recognizing that there’s a lot more to the human experience than being a boy or a girl. It’s fine to acknowledge and celebrate the gender that you are, but feel empowered to define what that means for yourself.
It should be noted, of course, that gender isn’t always binary, and if someone in your family is transgender or gender nonconforming, the conversation may be more complex. But the objective is the same either way: live your own truth, but honor everyone else’s.
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