Gender Stereotypes – What’s A Parent to Do?

Gender Stereotypes – What’s A Parent to Do?
By Tracey Lipsig Kite, LCSW, Educator and Trainer, JCFS Chicago

“Do girls abandon our bodies because that’s where we’re shamed and boys abandon their emotions because that’s where they’re shamed? Little boys: Don’t feel. Little girls: Don’t hunger.” Glennon Doyle Melton in Love Warrior

Our culture today (often unconsciously) pushes girls and boys into separate boxes, and handicaps them emotionally. Despite our efforts to the contrary, we continue to tell girls, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, that being nice, beautiful, smart and successful are expected; expressing anger is not OK. We tell boys that being tough, strong and a leader are important, and the only emotion that is OK for them to express is anger. To further complicate things, most people aren’t aware of having taken in those messages, so we may be passing them on to our kids without meaning to. Two JCFS Chicago parenting sessions of particular interest over the past two years are: Girl Drama and Raising Emotionally Healthy Boys.

In Girl Drama we discuss the fact that the more stereotypically feminine a girl is (the more she buys into being nice and beautiful), the more likely she is to express her anger through relational aggression (gossiping, excluding other girls, and other types of social aggression). This is a more acceptable way for females in our culture to behave when they are angry or unhappy.

Conversely, we push boys into the Man Box – where anger, aggression and emotional withdrawal are the only acceptable ways to act. Emotional intimacy and vulnerability are not permitted in the Man Box, but sexual conquest, pornography and sex without emotional intimacy are.

As parents, we don’t want our kids put into any boxes – so what do we do?

Acknowledge the problem

Pay attention to when your words or actions are pushing your child toward one box or the other. Do you tell your daughter not to get mad? Do you tell your son not to cry? Most adults were raised with these messages and it is natural for us to pass them on (sometimes without knowing we are doing it). It is often easier to see and recognize these actions in those around us. If I notice when my mom shames my kids about being angry, then I need to look at when I might do it myself. Read a Ted Talk about a dad realizing how he pushes his son into the man box.

Accept the situation

Accepting the situation doesn’t mean that we like our behavior or our thought patterns or the messages that are being communicated to our kids. It does mean acknowledging that it is a reality.For me it is important to not vilify the cultural messages that my family is exposed to (the unrealistic proportions of Barbie or a model’s photo shopped body, for example), but to accept that this is the world we live in and that we have choices about what we want to do about it. I can get angry, but just being angry won’t change the situation.

Take action

The actions parents can take include:

  1. Recognizing our own behavior and working to change it. Instead of telling my daughter not to get mad, I need to acknowledge her anger and help her find appropriate ways to express it.When my son is upset about something, I need to empathize with him and help him find the words to talk about what he is feeling.
  2. Identifying the cultural messages and talking about them with our kids. In the TV show yours on is watching, did the boy get put down for crying? Wonder with your son about how the boy might have felt when that happened. Share with him that the world isn’t always comfortable with boys having feelings, but that you think it is really important. Point out males in his life that do express their feelings.
  3. Advocating for healthier emotional behavior. Do your best to model it, support organizations,books and media that demonstrate people being emotionally healthy. Talk to your friends (in person or in social media) about your struggles and what you are trying to work towards. Join in existing conversations about pushing against the cultural scripts and expectations for manhood and womanhood.

Parenting is hard and messy, and the world we are raising kids in is hard and messy. By paying attention to our ingrained gender stereotypes, and making small steps to change our families and our kids, we can move the needle just a little away from stereotypes, and towards authentic kids, teens and adults.

Tracey Lipsig Kite LCSW has been a social worker at JCFS Chicago for over 22 years. Her passion is the development and support of healthy people, families, and communities. Please share this article,with acknowledgement, as appropriate.