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Children focus too much on gender stereotypes

Published: August 23, 2013
Section: Opinions


I spent my summer surrounded by children, working at both a musical theater summer camp and for a nanny company.

Spending nine or more hours a day with kids was a learning experience in more ways than one. What surprised me the most was learning about the way that children perceive and experience gender. I was disappointed to learn, during the course of the summer, how children speak about gender. Clothing, toys, board games—pretty much everything made for children create a deep gender divide using colors and decorations to separate the sexes.

The theater camp was divided into two sessions: the first was for elementary-aged children and the second was for middle-school aged children. Through the nanny company, I became a regular babysitter for a five-year-old boy. In addition, I signed up for various on-call assignments for families that only needed a babysitter for a day or evening.

Because I worked with children in both elementary and middle school, I met children of many different ages that ranged from six months to 13 years. Across the many ages, I was struck the most by the gender differences prevalent in elementary-aged children.

Girls, for example, wore pink—almost all the time, and this is not an exaggeration. When they were not wearing pink, they were wearing sparkles or flowers, and their clothes were form-fitting.

Boys, on the other hand, wore what you see most adult males wearing: shorts, especially running or cargo shorts, t-shirts and tennis shoes. Their shirts featured superheroes and graphics more than I’ve seen men my age wear, and simple, bland colors: lots of blues, blacks and reds. There are other colors too, but almost never pink.

The multitude of board games, video games and cartoon TV shows struck me too. Characters or players in these were dominantly male. Sometimes there would be a supporting female, but she had something definitively feminine about her. Many of the girl cartoon characters had long eyelashes, as if that was the defining characteristic of being a girl.

I was also fascinated by the way most children would used pronouns. I noticed how the kid I regularly babysat always used “he” unless, just like in the games he played and shows he watched, unless the character had something fitting the feminine stereotype such as a high voice (even though all children have higher voices) or long eyelashes.

I don’t get it.

I don’t understand why adults feel the need to instill this skewed sense of gender in our children at such a young age. Why does that matter so much? Why are we taught to identify with our gender and to judge other people based on their gender from such a young age? Why are we taught that people have to fit into a certain category—boy or girl—as early as elementary school or maybe even before then? Why are we taught that clothing defines a person’s gender, and why do we care so much about what gender people are?

I don’t understand why the boy I babysat said one day, “I can talk like a girl! Listen!” and then proceeded to speak in an unnaturally high-pitched voice. Most children all sound the same, but he didn’t understand that. He had it in his head that girls sounded differently from boys and was imitating a girl’s voice as a form of humor. It seems that boys sounding like girls is very funny in elementary school.

I believe this deep gendering of children is not only problematic for boys and girls, but for children that do not identify with their anatomical sex and/or gender stereotype as well. A year before, I worked at a summer school, and there was a young female who identified with “boy” things. She had a “boy” haircut, wore “boy” clothing and had a Batman backpack, but she still went by her “girl” name and liked to play with both genders on the playground even though many children prefer to play mainly with others of their own gender.

The other children were confused as to why someone who, in their eyes, acted so obviously like a boy would use the girls’ bathroom. They viewed gender based on how this child looked, not on her name or how she often liked to play with other girls at recess. They placed so much worth in trying to understand the child’s gender instead of just playing with her as a new friend.

Too much emphasis is placed on children identifying with their born sex. I don’t know where it comes from, but this deep wanting to fit into the gender binary is problematic. Perhaps if there wasn’t such a deep divide in the way children dressed, then calling a child by the wrong gender would not be considered an insult. Perhaps then would more adults learn to overcome their fear of not looking feminine or masculine enough so that they can learn to be more secure in their own skin.