8 Steps to Equal Opportunity Parenting in the Face of Gender Norms

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Equal Opportunity Parenting Word Cloud

Raising a child is never easy. Raising a child in a way counter to the socially accepted norms is even harder. Yet, my husband and I raise our little girl to play what she wants, with whom she wants, and how she wants, as long as she treats the people and the world around her with respect.

Yah, yah, I know, that doesn’t sound very radical. The thing is, it is.

Most people raise their girls to be “girls,” and their boys to be “boys.” The idea that a boy may like “girl things and activities” or a girl may like “boy things and activities” seems implausible to many. Yet, if we don’t do this, our girls and boys learn to be who people expect them to be instead of themselves.

I call it “equal opportunity parenting.” Here are 8 steps you can take to let your kids be whoever they want to:

Step 1: Provide a diverse variety of toys and activities.

I buy things from the toy section, ignoring the girl/boy split. I buy clothes from the kids section, ignoring the girl/boy split. I expose my daughter to an array of activities from sports to math to dance, ignoring the girl/boy split.

Step 2: Let each kid decide their own interests.

I let my daughter choose what she likes. As a result, I have a little girl who loves dance and math, enjoys playing in the dirt, doing science experiments, and plays house with her snuggly stuffed animal while her dolls generally sit on a shelf. She doesn’t like playing chase at school, so she simply doesn’t join in the game.

Her school loves the inclusive behavior my daughter shows. When my girl was two years old, her teachers told me that they see differences in the girls and boys at that age already. By the time she was three, teachers were telling me how wonderful it was to have my daughter in the class, and how she loved to play with all kids, both boys and girls. This has continued to today. How they wished more kids were like that. How unusual that was.

Step 3: Acknowledge ingrained and institutionalized pushback.

Yet, I see society pushing its norms back onto her. There was also a mother having talk after talk about, no, really my little ballerina was, in fact, a girl. She likes playing that way not because she plays like a boy, but because some girls like playing like that too. It doesn’t make them boys.

Sometimes, the pushback has to do with inequality. When she was three, her class had a dress code. Boys could wear slacks and golf shirts or dress shirts. Girls could wear that plus dresses, jumpers, and skirts. I shopped across the children’s clothes section, as always. My little girl quickly decided that her jumper was a superhero cape and it became a favorite outfit. All the little boys in her class got to wear no such cape to school. Because she was a girl, she was allowed into their world with only a small push on our part. Yet, boys were denied access to her world, the school-uniform-cape world.

Step 4: Point out and defuse stereotypes.

How come girls had their private little world with “no boys allowed”? Yet, there was a “girls allowed” sign on the boys world? That doesn’t seem fair–to my girl or her friends. She started asking questions like “Can boys wear skirts?” and “Can boys dance in ballet?” Every time these questions have come up, my husband and I have answered truthfully that anyone can wear/do these things. We show her pictures on the web of men in kilts.

But her classmates got a different message. Shortly after her cape wearing days, she came home and told me, sadly, that apparently “girls can’t be superheroes.” Next, she came home and told me “girls can’t drive tractors.” Finally, she came home and said: “Someday, I hope I am as smart as a boy.” Society was doing its best to counter my daughter’s freedom to be who she wants to.

Step 5: Openly challenge the norm in the wider community.

Fortunately, I had an ally on my side. My girl’s teacher responded strongly to dismissing half the population because of their gender. Through an active effort on the teacher’s part, the behavior was traced to three little boys. Parents were talked to. Which father it came from was identified. The mother was crushed that her husband was saying such things to her son. Then, the in-class education on equal rights began. Within a month, all kids thought that judging what a person can or cannot do based on gender was “silly” and not to be tolerated.

And yet, the boys still could not wear a cape, or like pink for that matter. I am lucky. Girls can enter a boys world at an early age. The reverse is simply not true in most cases. Little boys are taught that liking “girl things” makes them weak. Can we really blame little boys for pushing girls back into their gender roles when boys are simply not allowed to break out of their roles? Can you blame little boys for thinking that girls are weaker, dumber, less when liking something labeled as “girl” makes them labeled weak?

Step 6: Talk about the importance of intrusive value vs. peer pressure.

At some point, the little girl who likes all colors will be pushed by her peers, boys and girls alike, to like pink, play with Disney princesses, and stay out of the “boys section” of a store. While she now believed she could do what she liked, my girl felt she had to like what was expected of her by her peers. My husband and I continued to offer her options, and once they were in the house, she would play with what she liked, but say she liked what was accepted. We supported her the best we can.

Then, she heard a conversation between my husband and me about shoes as status symbols. Being a child, she asked, “What’s that?” So I told her. I explained that some people do things or buy things because they think other people want them to. I said I thought that was a silly thing to do. She agreed. Fifteen minutes later, she declared that she hated the color pink.

Since then, we have been trying to help her come to terms with the fact that she can like pink things, but only when she really does. She does not have to like them because others expect her to. She is allowed to like things or not regardless of what others think. All in all, at the young age of five, she is already actively thinking about what she likes, and fighting stereotypes to be who she wants to be. It is a never-ending struggle that she will be better able to handle than many.

Step 7: Hold the same standards for boys and girls.

This has brought home some of the unacceptable boy behavior, as she feels she has the same privileges as a boy. Just today, I had to tell her that “I will kill you” is never an acceptable joke. Because these behaviors are considered acceptable in little boys. Yet, a boy wearing a skirt is not. With this dynamic with kids under five, can we really be surprised by the men and women our boys and girls become?

Step 8: Be unapologetic and firmly civilized in your convention.

It is time for a change. It is time to let our little boys into “the girls’ world” so that our little girls don’t get pushed around in “the real world.” Is it really so threatening to your manhood to have a little boy wear a superhero-cape-jumper, or for that matter, a princess dress? It is time to stop excusing behavior in little boys because they are boys, but holding girls accountable for the same behavior. Do men really have this little control over their behavior? Are women really inferior to men? I just can’t believe that it is.

So I ask you to please join with me in equal opportunity parenting.