Empower Girls and Connect with Boys
I once asked two six-year olds, a boy and a girl, what the key was to popularity in first grade. The boy said, ”Shoot missiles.” The girl said ”Be nice.” In other words, the fact that boys are given a heavy dose of ”boys don’t cry” does not mean that girls have full freedom to express all their feelings either. […]No wonder so many girls become experts at subtle cruelty. [from chapter 8 of Playful Parenting of Lawrence Cohen]
Cohen here mentions the large body of research about how we gender children. We adults tend to treat both younger and older children very differently depending on their sex. And this really locks the children into rigid roles. Like the ones mentioned in the caption above.
I read this chapter with mixed feelings. I am in a way happy to live in Sweden where there is always an ongoing discussion about these issues, both in media and among ordinary people. It is actually quite common that parents talk about gender stereotypes, and it is sort of assumed that everybody try to make at least some things to break up this tradition. We also have many organisations, companies and agencies that work actively with promoting more gender-aware methods in families, schools and kindergartens.
At the same time I also feel how very true it is that these gender patterns are in many ways unconscious, like Cohen also mentions several times. They are very difficult to change, and we tend to act these out the gender stereotypes with our children even if we make a deliberate effort not to do that. So in spite of belonging to some sort of global elite on gender equality, I feel that we very much face the same problems that Cohen mentions from his American vantage point. Unconsciously we Swedes give our children very much the same gendered roles as in the rest of the world.
Play can have a very important role in working with gender stereotypes:
- Play introduces a sort of a ”free-trade-zone” where normal rules are suspended and children can try new ways of acting. Boys can be encouraged to be sensitive and caring and girls can be encouraged to lead and express anger and individualism.
- In play adults can also model expression of new behaviours and feelings, in the guise of joking and playing.
- Girls and boys playing together can also present a very creative challenge, when the dinosaurs and transformers meet the barbies and bratz, and new combinations can emerge.
Cohen here stresses the importance of meeting the child where (s)he is, typically playing boy-things with boys and girl-stuff with girls. And then from that point of departure, as an adult you can try to toss in new things and see what happens if the superhero hurt his leg and cries for comfort, for instance.
Also it might be extra important that fathers make an effort to play with dolls and that mothers play physical games and roughhouse (etc.).
The goal here of course is not to make men of women, and women of men, but to promote more healthy and flexible identities for both sexes.
Note: This posting is part of a series where I read each chapter of the book Playful Parenting (of Lawrence Cohen) together with Jennifer at Inspire Mama. Jennifer has been busy being pregnant recentle so this series have been dormant, but I plan to take it up again soon (added june 2011).