Talking about Gender with Family

This week we are returning to some previous posts about how to talk about gender. First up, a post about handling gender fair values in your family. Later this week, how to talk (or not to) about gender with prospective parents.

This might come as a shock, dear readers, but not everyone is on board with this gender-fair business. Some people think differences between boys and girls should be encouraged. Others simply don’t see the harm that comes from not doing anything. Certainly the mainstream media is a culprit, but what about the people in your own life? What if, in fact, the gendered dialogue comes from family members, people whose efforts and affection are ostensibly directed toward your child’s happiness?

Family can be the most difficult arena in which to meet resistance. Many family members may feel whatever they are doing is for the benefit of your child. It can be hard to criticize hard work, even if those efforts are flawed or misguided. One of my favorite anti-racist parenting blogs captures what I think is most important here: Love Isn’t Enough. Loving the children in your life and cultivating their happiness isn’t enough in a world where boys and girls actually experience two separate worlds. Intention is simply not the same as action, and YOUR action is critical.

“Baby X” studies are a great illustration of these separate worlds: participants in these studies meet a baby and are told the baby is a boy, while other participants meet the same baby and are told she is a girl. Participants playing with “boys” play actively with them, while those playing with “girls” soothe and cuddle. Similarly, when research participants are show a video of a child crying when the jack pops out of a jack-in-the-box, they attribute the crying to anger or surprise if they are told the child is a boy, but fear if they are told the child is a girl. Even when we’re talking about the very same child, most people in our gender-intensive culture behave differently with a girl than with a boy. From the very beginning, boys and girls are treated differently based on their gender, so it’s no wonder we’re capable of cultivating in them strong ideas about gendered interests and abilities.

In my own life, inside and outside of my family, I try to pursue fair play. I am cognizant of what I say to, how I interact with, and what I purchase for the many children in my life. Just last week I had a meltdown in the scrapbook paper aisle at Michael’s because I felt like my choice of child-friendly paper designs was still maybe, possibly, a little bit gendered. Without a doubt, being gender fair all the time is a lot of work and takes some very intentional habit forming. It takes effort to monitor your own actions this way. It can be deeply frustrating when the other important adults in a child’s life are resistant to engaging in these efforts as well.

So how do you address this resistance in your own family? First, show by example in your own adherence to fair play in your purchases, activities, and conversation with the children in your life. Second, try to explain family members why gender-fair play is so important by explaining the consequences of either approach. Third, give them resources for fair play execution:

  1. Peggy Orenstein has a great book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, about the implications of “girly girlhood” on girls’ development. This is one of my go-to gifts for baby showers as well. Lise Eliot’s somewhat denser Pink Brain, Blue Brain addresses the real and meaningful differences between boys and girls – and how small differences may lead to larger gaps.
  2. Lisa Bloom has two great articles, How to Talk to Little Girls and How to Talk to Little Boys. She tackles why our typical gender-focused conversations with children may be negatively impacting their development, and how to retool the conversation. It isn’t easy to suppress “your dress is so cute!” when, well, it is, but wouldn’t you rather be asking little girls about their interests, what they are reading, what they think?
  3. Direct them to this blog!

Addressing the “but she wants the pink [blank]” chorus is an (upcoming) blog post in and of itself. For now, and perhaps above all, take responsibility for your own role in fair play. Be that voice, even if you are the only voice.

Originally posted 9/24/12

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  1. Pingback: Talking about Babies and Gender | Fair Play

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