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Talking to kids about gender roles

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

Reiterating family values

I overheard my older son say to my younger son the other day, "You don't like sports? Aren't you a guy?" I was more than taken aback. We've worked hard in our family not to delineate roles and interests strictly by gender, and here was one of those declarations coming out of my son's mouth.

Reiterating family values

Since this bias obviously didn't come from his parents (his mom tends to be the mainstream sports fan, not so much his dad), where did it come from? Peers and the greater society, of course. The exchange served to remind me of the influences our children have beyond the walls of our home and that I need to remain vigilant and asserting our family's beliefs and values.

A world of possibilities

When the kids were younger, we made a conscious effort not to limit interests (including toys and such) based on gender. My boys loved cooking toys and my daughter loved trucks (and still does). We also made the effort not to talk about roles, responsibilities and jobs in terms of girl or boy or mommy or daddy interests. Boys can like dancing, girls can like baseball, daddies can do laundry, and mommies can master the grill - heck, men can be nurses, and women can be doctors.

We chose to do this because we didn't want to limit our kids in anyway. We wanted all our kids to see the world in terms of limitless possibility, and not see doors closed off by their individual gender. We knew that social and peer pressure would come into play one day, but we didn't quite know when. Our older son's developing interest in watching professional football games was humorous to us because we had never (well, maybe once or twice) watched the sport on television in our home. We didn't fight his interest - just kept to the base house rules that limit television in general.

Getting a little smug

At some point, with all the other demands of parenting, we stopped paying attention to this issue as closely as we had in the past. We got a little smug, figuring we'd done the base work. Even though we knew we'd have some indication that we'd need to address the issue again at some point, neither of us expected such a blatant gender-biased statement out of our son's mouth. Definitely it's time to readdress the issue.

New conversations

We had a talk with our son about what we had said, and reiterated our point of view on gender roles. More specifically, we reminded him that we support the interests of all our children whether they conform to "traditional" societal expectations or not. It's perfectly okay that his brother isn't into mainstream sports like football right now; maybe he will be one day, maybe he won't, but he should never be put down for not conforming to that societal expectation. Similarly, his sister may become a huge sports fan and should never be dissuaded from that interest just because of her gender. It didn't take long; he got it. Somewhere inside him those base lessons were still floating around.

Unless you keep your child solely within the walls of your home and only among family - with no outside media - there will be influences from the outside world on your children. Those influences will challenge and contradict the things you have taught them. Since completely removing them from the greater world isn't an option, teaching them once is not enough - you have to keep at it! You have to communicate the foundation of your beliefs, not just the declarative statements.

We all have values that we try to teach in the home that may be challenged in the outside home. Consistent and regular communications about those values is what it takes to balance the outside influences. You may not be one hundred percent successful (kids did have this habit of developing minds of their own!) but you as a parent are your kids' greatest influence of all.

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