I am as guilty as the next person for gender–stereotyping my son. He has lots of trains, fire engines and cars and I have just painted one of the walls in his bedroom blue with pictures of planets. However, according to Sandra Bem, it is not good for children to be gender-stereotyped too much. Children who are too gender stereotyped find it difficult to express themselves fully, have lower self-esteem and are more likely to suffer from mental health problems later. Girls may feel that they have to be passive, caring and helpful and boys may feel that they have to be competitive, aggressive and active even this goes against their natural inclinations. Obviously, it is better for children to feel they can be themselves and explore any interests irrespective of gender stereotypes. I certainly wouldn’t want my son to feel he couldn’t be caring and helpful.
Gender stereotypes may also be one of the reasons boys are doing worse at school than girls. Apparently, doing your homework and being conscientious is now considered to be for girls. Haywood and Mac an Ghaill interviewed boys in a secondary school in the West Midlands and found that the boys saw academic achievement as feminine. Gender stereotypes may also affect which subjects at school children choose to engage with. Cvencek and others investigated whether children had gender stereotypes about mathematics. They showed children two pictures, one of a girl doing maths and one of a boy doing maths. They found that the children were more likely to rate the boy as enjoying the maths than the girl.
So what can parents do to stop their children becoming too gender stereotyped? Parents can choose toys for both genders for their children. To address this, I have got my son a kitchen, dolls’ house and baby doll in addition to his more boyish toys. I am pleased to report that he has played with the kitchen extensively but the dolls’ house and baby doll were not great successes. He seems naturally more inclined to play with his train set but I have tried my best.
Parents can also buy toys in neutral colours and paint their childrens’ rooms in neutral colours, which I have already failed to do if you count my son’s blue space wall. I think it is pretty hard to resist your son’s desire for a Thomas the Tank Engine bedroom or your daughter’s requests for a princess or fairy bedroom. Finally, parents can try to be less gender stereotyped themselves, which is easier said than done. My husband and I had more equal roles before children but now I seem to do more cooking and cleaning. However, my husband and I do try to share roles as much as possible.
You might be wondering whether there are negative effects to avoiding gender stereotypes . Will your boy get teased if he chooses to play with dolls at school? Sadly, Sroufe et al. (1993) found that pre-teenage children who do not conform to gender stereotypes are less popular with their peers. However, I would still try to avoid gender stereotypes at home. I know my son has already learnt gender stereotypes from others outside the home and he will quite clearly tell me that dolls are for girls and that he doesn’t like pink. I question him on these comments because I want him to learn that long-term he can like whatever he wants regardless of gender.