February 18, 2015
Dr Brown has spent more than a decade focusing her research on the damaging effects of gender stereotypes on children.
Christia, thanks so much for taking time out to talk with me today.
I’m sure many of our readers would be interested to know why you felt compelled to write ‘Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue’ … were there particular things you were seeing in your work as a developmental psychologist that led you to feel compelled to speak out?
I was seeing two disturbing trends. First, I noticed more and more toys being promoted as the “girl version” or the “boy version”. The Little People School Bus, a classic toy from my childhood, is now sold in pink as well as the traditional yellow. Bikes for kids only come in pink/purple or black/silver/red. I noticed when shopping for my own kids, that it was becoming increasingly difficult to buy just a toy. I could only find options that were gender-specific. I kept being frustrated at the toy store that I was having to make a statement about gender every single time I wanted to buy something, even when the toy itself was traditionally gender-neutral (like a bike).
The second trend I noticed was that more and more public schools in the US were being structured as single-sex schools on the premise that boys and girls are so different that they can’t even be taught in the same way. I had done some work on this issue and was frustrated that parents really seem to think that boys’ and girls’ brains are very different from one another and they learn completely differently. The research however, says the exact opposite. Research really says that boys and girls are remarkably similar in how they think and what they like, they just become different after years of adults treating them differently. Both trends, with toys and schools, seem to be pushing boys and girls further apart from one another, like we are different species or come from different planets. So I decided to write a book to talk to parents about what the science really shows about the differences between boys and girls and to help parents see how detrimental it is to constantly choose this color-coded, gender-separated world for our kids to live in.
Is there an overarching message of your book — why do you think it’s so important we ‘parent beyond pink and blue’?
I think it is so important for a couple of reasons. First, gender stereotypes are blatantly inaccurate. This isn’t a moral issue or a political issue. Good science is very clear. The differences between boys and girls is not as big as the difference between individual children. So if parents use their child’s gender to guide their assumptions for their children and their decisions for their children, then they are going to be making biased decisions. Instead, they should focus on their individual child’s behavior, traits, and skills, which will sometimes align with the stereotypes for that child’s gender and sometimes not.
This is why it is so very important. Play and media shape how our children view the world and themselves. Thousands of research studies show this. These experiences in childhood alter our adulthood in profound ways. When those experiences are biased by gender stereotypes, children develop in ways that are limited by out-dated societal expectations, not by what best for our children.
What impact does marketing have on the way we view children and gender roles?
Marketing plays a huge role. Even bigger than most parents think. Studies show that if I give a child a new toy, one they have never seen before, and tell them it is a girl’s toy, the girls will love playing with it and the boys will reject it. If I give the exact same toy to another group of children, only this time tell them that it is a boy’s toy, the boys will love playing with it and the girls will reject it. The toy was exactly the same; the only difference was how it was marketed. Children know who toys are targeted for. They know by 2 1/2 years old. If it is marketed to girls (by being pink, by having pictures of only girls playing with it on the box, or by being sold in the girls’ aisles at the toy store), boys will reject it.
How does the sexualisation of children in the media factor in all of this?
The sexualization of children is a major concern. Sexualized images of girls are reaching younger and younger. It is very difficult to avoid these toys and these media images. Bratz dolls are the classic example. There is a lot of research about how this damages children. Girls feel worse about their bodies and have lower self-esteem after exposure to sexualization, and boys and girls develop more negative stereotypes about one another after viewing these images. It also puts a weird focus on behaviors that are reserved for adults and adolescents. To assume that boys and girls are interested in one another sexually before they reach puberty is simply not how children think.
Many parents seem to misunderstand the concept of raising kids without gender stereotypes, feeling threatened by this concept. There seems to be a misconception that this will mean a world of beige, where gender neutral equates to bland androgynous children. That something (pink, barbie, trucks) will be taken away, rather than options being opened up for children. What is it you think parents misunderstand or feel threatened by when it comes to the idea of challenging stereotypes?
So parents may think that raising kids without gender stereotypes limits their children, pushing them all into a beige world. Really though it is pushing unique, distinct individual children into a pink box or a blue box that is limiting. I don’t advocate gender-neutral kids. I think we should make gender irrelevant, because focusing too much on gender distracts us from focusing on our children’s individuality.
We really need to do away with the assumption that boys and girls are drastically different from one another and acknowledge the scientific reality that individual children differ from one another much more, and their worlds should be as individualized as they are rather than simply driven by gender.
If parents were to adopt just three actions as a starting point towards raising healthy, well balanced children free of gender stereotypes, what should they be?
Gender marketing amplifies the idea of gender difference by compressing children’s diverse interests and preferences into two narrow, stereotype-laden boxes. So I would start with:
1. Stop using gender to label children, to sort children, and to guide purchases for children. No more “What a smart girl!” comments and boys-only birthday parties.
2. Correct children whenever they make a stereotypical comment, no matter how minor. Stop statements like “Boys are gross!” and “Girls can’t play basketball!,” because this type of group-based thinking is limiting. Instead, point out the variation. Parents can say, “Some girls can’t play basketball, but some girls can. Just like some boys play basketball, but some can’t. Think about Lisa Leslie. She can dunk a basketball”.
3. Remember that all toys and all media are educational — they teach children how to interact with the world and help them practice the skills they will use in adulthood. Toys should foster the traits you want your child to develop, regardless of gender. All children should have toys that foster nurturance, empathy, and perspective taking like dolls, fine motor skills and spatial skills — like building toys and puzzles- and hand-eye coordination like ball toys. No children should have toys that model unattainable bodies like Barbies or foster violence and aggression like guns. Go edit the toy closet and donate or throw away the toys that don’t reinforce positive traits and skills.
In addition, the increasingly-gendered offerings heighten the rewards of conforming to gender stereotypes and amplify the costs of not doing so. Children who do defy the dictates of gender-marketing often experience painful social sanctions from their peers or from adults. There are far too many stories of children being bullied or taunted for selecting toys that are perceived as gender non-conforming.
I ask everyone I interview this same question… If you had a magic wand, what would you change in relation to children and gender stereotypes and why?
I would make gender no more important than height or hair color for guiding our assumptions about what children are like.
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