You see a cute onesie that is just perfect for your baby, but you sigh and buy another one instead because it has one fatal flaw: it's pink and you have a little boy. You gently chide your little girl for picking the wrong toy in a shop- it's not a choking hazard and it doesn't have sharp edges, but it does have wheels. Little girls only play with dolls and kitchen sets, right? No, wrong. With seemingly trivial choices, we begin conditioning our children to gender roles before they can even speak in full sentences. We're doing them a huge disfavour.
Here are five simple practices that will go a long way in protecting your children from the mindless gender stereotypes that they'll be bombarded with from elsewhere.
1. Stop colour-coding by gender
The other day, my four-year-old asked yet again: "Mum, are you sure?"
"Sure of what?"
"That pink is not the colour for girls, and blue for boys?"
"Yes," I said. "I am very sure."
I then took my daughter to the balcony. "Look at the sky. What colour do you see?"
"Blue. Light blue."
"Now tell me, is the sky there only for boys? Does it shine or rain only for them and not us?"
"Good! Now look down there. What colour?"
"Green," she said as she looked down intently at the grass.
"What colour was the sea, when we went to Goa?"
"So, do you see what I mean?"
She nods a yes at me thoughtfully. "All these things in all kinds of colours, both girls and boys can see and touch them."
"Right. So what would you say when anyone...?"
"I'll show them the sky and the park."
Cook up whatever story you like, but please don't lead your children into believing that they are more different from the other gender than they really are.
Colour-coded sexism doesn't exactly build solidarity for humanity, does it? Instead, why not buy them green, yellow, red, blue andpink -- any colour, actually!
2. Give them a variety of toys to play with
A Barbie for the girl, or that kitchen set. Boys? Why, cars and guns?
Talk of social conditioning? This.
So the little girl grows up with her doll-house, playing a mother as she sees them to be -- dressing up and plaiting the hair of the dolls, making them breakfast in her plastic kitchen and putting them off to sleep right next to herself. Cut to 25 years later: She is that one of the two parents who, always, worries more for her kids than the other one, and who knows what they love to eat. She calls home in between her office meetings to see check on the kids. She coos to them over the phone and comforts them if they're upset. She takes the day off when the baby is unwell, always. Her colleagues make snide comments and her manager is frustrated. She, too, is wracked with guilt. Always. She rushes back home on the dot, never putting up her hand for that extra-mile project, giving away her promotion to what you call "priority changes".
Maternal instincts, you say? Well, perhaps there is more to it. Perhaps...
So, for once, why not start right at the beginning?
The next time the shopkeeper asks if something is for a girl or a boy, fix your gaze on him and say "Just. A. Kid."
Teach your boy to nurture too. Teach your girl to play with fast cars as well. Tell other parents who may care to lend an ear. Let them play with everything age-appropriate, irrespective of their gender. Dolls, kitchen sets, cars. Beading sets and Lego. Jigsaws and doctor sets. Cricket bats and balls.
Why not buy a doll when it's a boy birthday and a car when it's a girl? In all probability, s/he never had one before and s/he'd love it all the more.
And, the next time the shopkeeper asks if something is for a girl or a boy, fix your gaze on him and say "Just. A. Kid." Make it a point to say this.
Oh, and never buy a toy gun. For anyone!
3. Read them stories, but rethink the old fairy tales
...And then the prince came and took Cinderella away. Or Snow White. Or Rapunzel. Or Belle.
And then? Of course! They live happily ever after!
Wait. Hold on. We cannot be so oblivious anymore, can we? Please open your eyes to the traps before it is late. Don't read stories to your children that perpetuate myths that only damage women.
Instead, why not help your daughter believe that while it's great to find a soul mate, a "prince charming", she doesn't need him to "rescue" her. She can be brave and save herself too. Help her believe that having a good life partner is indeed a pretty nice thing, but that is not the only way to be happy in life.
Tell her the right stories, please! Select and choose. Be aware. Filter. Tell them stories but not these ones, at least not in their original form. I beg of you!
But didn't we read them as kids? We are fine, right? Oh, nostalgia! Ah, those days...
Totally. I know. I share that feeling, too. But then, dare to stop and think for once, won't you?
So what shall we read them?
Ah, now we are talking!
On a personal note, my four-year-old doesn't eat or sleep without a story first. And I haven't repeated any of them till date. So, trust me when I assure you that there is no shortage of stories and books that don't communicate regressive messages. You can always make up tales too!
Help your daughter believe that while it's great to find a soul mate, a "prince charming", she doesn't need him to "rescue" her.
Among the old classics, there are tons of gender-neutral stories and rhymes about animals, such as The Ugly Duckling, The Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff, The Town Mouse And The Country Mouse. There are also some fairytales that don't need much tweaking. Remember Goldilocks, the little girl who ate the baby-bear's pudding and went off to sleep in its bed? Remember Gretel, that younger sister who saved her brother Hansel from the witch and then they came back to the father? Little Red Riding Hood? The Pied Piper of Hamlin? I am sure you can think of some more, too.
Conduct a quick online search and you'll find a surfeit of newer books that are gender-neutral and progressive, especially with popular publishers such as Ladybird books recently deciding to drop any sort of gender branding. Look around and you'll be surprised at the variety of good reading material available for kids.
4. Put them into co-ed schools. Please!
Let your children grow up with other kids of both sexes, become familiar with them, become friends with them. Same-sex schools tend to treat the other gender as aliens! Let them grow up with the knowledge that men and women are people who share planet earth, and that they are not different species from Mars or Venus! Let them realise that men and women are fundamentally equal and that they always will be.
5. Let boys cry
Enough said, I believe?
This is an edited version of an article that was first published here.
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