These days, it's practically a cultural habit to hand your son a toy car and buy your daughter dolls to play with, perpetuating the gender stereotypes that society deems as "normal" for girls and boys. But what happens if your son would rather dress to the nines in play clothes, and your daughter obsesses over action figures?
A 2009 study from psychology research journal "Sex Roles" found that 31 percent of "girl" toys are marketed toward a girl's appearance, such as plastic make-up and princess dresses, while 46 percent of "boy" toys appeal to a boy's traits and activities, such as a chemistry set or a football. Essentially, these gender-biased playthings teach children to define a girl based on her looks, while describing a boy based on his actions.
The same study shows that children begin to understand gender roles early—as young as 30 months of age! Children ages 3 to 5 experience an increased awareness of themselves and world around them. Even toddlers can harbor certain opinions about what boys and girls should do, and may reject formerly beloved toys because of it.
Doug Gertner, Ph.D, also known as "The Grateful Dad," says, "When we send or support messages of idealized gender—tough, unemotional, driven boys, and demure, passive, dependent girls—we are not offering our children the opportunity to be themselves." Instead of forcing boys to shoot Nerf guns and girls to coddle baby dolls, remove the issue of gender roles and stereotypes in your home by allowing your child's imagination to run wild without gender-biased toys.
- Purchase creative toys. Supply your child with creative, gender-neutral toys. An action figure armed with guns and armor can only be played with in one way, and it probably won't support your son's nurturing and creative qualities. Instead, invest in sturdy toys that can be used in a variety of ways, like art supplies, colorful scarves, building blocks or animal sets. Remember, your son still might create towers to knock them down, or your daughter could create a dress out of a scarf. Accept these stereotypical play situations as natural personality preferences—not a commentary on your parenting skills.
- Offer a mixed bag for play. Kids are blank canvases, so there's no right or wrong when it comes to free time. Let your kids test out new ways to play, like giving your son free reign in the toy kitchen, or hitting a few balls outside with your daughter. Parents who express gender-biased decisions about what is "right" or "wrong" for play, such as telling your son that a Barbie is a "girl" toy, can damage exploratory feelings and discourage him from trying something new in the future.
- Call up other kids. Play dates are more than just a way to keep your kid occupied and out of your hair for a few hours. Invite boys and girls over to your house, leave out a box of gender-neutral toys, and prepare group games to ensure that both sexes play harmoniously together. If everyone participates in the same types of activities, your kid will eventually realize there's no "right" or "wrong" way to play, regardless of your sex.
- Diffuse bullying. While you can't protect your child from any negative views of the way he plays, you can put a positive spin on experimenting with different gender roles. For instance, if your son comes home in tears after being called a girl for playing dolls at school, remind him that all toys are meant to be fun for everyone. Then, call up and chat with school staff and the bully's parents; they should know that you promote all types of play in your home.
- Talk the talk with teachers. Even if you do your best to battle stereotypes at home, babysitters and teachers can undo your hard work without realizing it. Tell the people who care for your kids that you don't limit toys or activities for being "girlie" or "boyish"—and ask that they respect your wishes. If any caregivers feel uncomfortable abiding by your rules, find someone who shares your beliefs to take over.
- Confront gender stereotypes head-on. If you notice that your daughter complains that Spider-Man is "for boys," do your best to dispel her misconceptions. Gertner suggests talking about stereotypes when reading stories together, being "sure to emphasize that the little princess in the story is very smart and independent—not just pretty and seeking a man to care for her." If you have older kids, watch TV together or page through magazines and point out "typical" feminine or masculine ideas that you might notice.
The real trick to reducing gender stereotypes in your own family is to relax and allow your child to lead. You already have control over her diet, wardrobe and schedule; you can't also shape her interests and preferences. Expose your child to a range of toys, activities and interests and she'll create her own path, fostered by your fantastic parenting skills.