Dear parents, please let them be...

Societal gender norms do more harm to kids than we realise, writes Divya Palaniappan

Children tend to distinguish between their likes and dislikes based on their observations at home and the environment they are surrounded by.

Bringing up a child in a gender-neutral environment can be quite a task. There are many first-time parents who still organise baby showers themed in pink for girls and blue for boys. A toddler sitting quietly in a public place would still be appreciated as ‘Oh! What a lovely girl!’, whereas a child creating rumpus would be addressed as ‘Boys will be Boys!’ Meanwhile, in a kid’s store, a little boy would never pick a doll or a stuffed toy, whereas a girl would never pick blue or black-coloured jeans or jackets.

Him or her? Doesn’t matter

Children tend to distinguish between their likes and dislikes based on their observations at home and the environment they are surrounded by. Gender sensitivity can bring a positive impact on the growth of children, their choices, their development, and the kind of individuals they turn out to be eventually. As a child’s gender identity develops between the age of two and three, it’s crucial for parents to ensure that they are able to choose their own identity, and identify with it without bothering about the norms and standards rolled out by the society.

A child should be refrained from keeping himself/herself restricted on the basis of their biological identity. Instead, parents should motivate their kids to like and dislike whatever they want, even if society strictly specifies things that are meant for boys and girls.

By ensuring a gender-neutral mindset in kids, they can be open to accepting and understanding different perceptions of who they are, what they like, and much more. In fact, it will give them the freedom to be themselves without feeling restricted and getting their self-esteem hampered. Since children start learning by observing their parents at home, parents must express sensitive behaviour around them when it comes to gender roles and expectations. For instance, telling a boy that it’s disgraceful to play with a girl, lose to them in a game, or cry in front of them can create a bias in their mind and even make them emotionally confused. This might result in creating a sense of rage for expressing their negative emotions.

Here are a few ways parents can create a gender-neutral environment at home to raise their kids unbiasedly:

Teach them the concept of gender

It is crucial to let your children know that they are free to pick what they wear, befriend whoever they want to, pick any colour they prefer, express emotions any way they wish to, etc, regardless of their gender. Chances are that they might be mingling with children having gender-biased thoughts. In that case, parents must make them understand that it is okay to be different from the rest of the children. Discuss gender inequality issues with them. They must be told that it is not okay to judge a person based on what they do, or like.

Introduce gender-neutral toys

It isn’t the children, but the parents who are responsible for providing toys appropriate to their respective gender. So, telling them that dolls are meant only for girls while boys are supposed to play with toy cars isn’t a good idea. Instead, introduce them to non-gendered toys like board games, building blocks, puzzles, memory games, outdoor games, and much more. This can help parents in creating a gender-sensitive space for their kids. 

Allow them to express themselves freely

Parents usually have the tendency to impose things like clothes, books, the decor of their room etc, on their children. If your little boy demands a pink-coloured jacket for his birthday and your little girl wants to wear jeans and a t-shirt instead of frilled dresses, let them be.

Encourage the kids to mingle more with the opposite sex

There are parents who still don’t prefer a co-ed school for their children. In fact, even in kindergarten, witnessing boys playing with boys and girls playing with girls is a common sight. This groupism at such a tender age is the result of not encouraging the children to be friendly with their opposite sex. As a result, kids lose the opportunity to be sensitive towards their opposite sex. So, as a parent, it will be ideal to urge your kids to mingle with everyone around before they join kindergarten, regardless of gender.

Gender bias is a grave issue and before correcting it in children, it is crucial for adults to change their mindset. It is their responsibility to tell their children that their gender has no role to play in the choices they make. After all, their identity should be based on their social culture, opportunities, and their own preferences.

(The author is a child psychologist, Flinto R&D Center)

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