I still remember a time not so long ago when my five-year-old nephew had developed a fascination for all things supposedly ‘girly’. He loved the colour pink, and everything that sparkled. When the other kids played ball around us, he would want to practise braiding the hair of all the ladies in the house in the most creative ways. He went to a ballet class where he was the only boy and there he shone like a star.
He is seven now, and though his love for ballet has faded, Nutcracker still remains his most watched film. He goes to a jazz class with both boys and girls, and enjoys running around and rough and tumble play in the park. He doesn’t volunteer to braid our hair as often, but still makes the most astute observations about our change of hairstyle or dressing.
He is also the most sensitive and emotionally perceptive little boy I know. Being raised by parents who have never felt the need to raise their boys as ‘feminists’ or ‘footballers’, but simply left them free to explore the possibilities between those or any other categories, he is finding his own place in the world.
Gender bias is all over
Just as news of gender-based violence and discrimination bombards us in the most disturbing ways, so does a combative wave of protest against it, ensuring that a narrative of antidote also exists in parallel. For every objectifying statement made about women, one also hears its ‘liberating’ polar opposite. For each time a man commits violence against a woman, there is an exhortation to men everywhere to ‘man up’ to being respectful and sensitive.
But how do young minds make sense of these two extreme positions and arrive at the one they wish to live by? And how do parents find their own sense of balance between ‘politically correct’ and comfortable parenting around these sensitive issues?
Here are some things you can do in your day-to-day routine to sensitise your child about gender equality:
- Watch out for stereotypes. Have you ever told your son that he needs to ‘protect’ his sister because ‘she is a girl’ or told your daughter that she needs to help lay the table or serve the guests because she is a girl? Buying dolls for the girls and cars for the boys, or doing up their rooms in girly or boyish ways are stereotypic overloads children could do well without. Right from infancy, raise your children in an atmosphere of curiosity and freedom. Allow them to explore possibilities, identities and choices as they grow up, without them having to fear being judged.
- Subtle ways in which you may be creating a gender bias in your child. While narrating bedtime stories, be mindful to avoid gender stereotypes such as princesses in need of protection by the prince and the princess repaying the favour by marrying the prince. And let them pick up toys from both the ‘girls’ or ‘boys’ sections.
- Teach them to question gender roles in the world around them. Why do you think the character in this movie made that choice? What could be the consequences of such a choice, for themselves and others? Could there be another choice he/she could have made? The next time they express a wish to ‘keep the girls out of it’ or buy that blue Kinder Joy™ instead of the pink one, ask them why they want to make that choice, and help them see another perspective.
- Model it! Most of what children pick up comes from what they see around them. If they see their parents share chores in an atmosphere of understanding and fairness, the message they get is that this is how it is done. If your children notice that it’s normal for their father to shop for vegetables or cook a meal while their mother is comfortable with fixing a broken thing, it helps to dissolve gender biases in their mind.
- Make sure responsibilities are given keeping interests and abilities in mind, rather than being based on what girls or boys ‘ought’ to do. If your little girl enjoys cooking and baking, by all means encourage her to try her hand at it, and if your son is good with electronic repairs, let him enjoy the responsibility. But if your son enjoys playing with your daughter’s doll house don’t lose sleep over it. Let them know that they are free to experiment with the other role as and when they like.
- And finally, remember that promoting equality irrespective of gender, caste, skin colour or economic status, may be more important than promoting equality based on gender alone. Men and women are different, not necessarily equal in every way, just as no two people are or can be equal in every way. But that difference does not warrant discrimination. That is the message to focus on.
Among us are women who are great drivers and mountain climbers, men who are amazing chefs and have an impressive sense of design, and perhaps what allowed each of them to be all they wanted to be, is someone who believed in their worthiness as people, not as men or women. Let us raise our children in this spirit then, where we value them for who they are and not how well they fit into defined categories.
This was first published in the April 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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