Don’t let the gender trap limit girls’ and boys’ development

Parents and other adults often unwittingly fall into the gender trap and limit children’s development.

More than 30 years of research indicates ways in which parents and other adults in children’s lives help to construct kids’ identities around issues of gender. More recent literature shows that, for the most part, parents still participate (often unwittingly and unknowingly) in a pattern of gender socialization through the selection of gender-typical toys, activities, room décor and gendered clothing for their children.

While some believe this is a natural part of development and hold the belief that “boys will be boys and girls will be girls” other scholars see this pattern in a different light. In her book, The Gender Trap: Parents and Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls, sociologist Emily Kane describes the link between the social construction of gender and the continued societal power imbalances between boys and girls, and men and women.  From this perspective, gender is not just a human difference as many believe – but a source of power and inequality. Examples that Kane shares are the links between the social construction of gender and domestic violence, wage gaps, glass ceilings, occupational gender segregation and political power imbalances.

Wow! Our everyday parenting practices impact these serious issues?  According to the work of Kane and many other scholars the answer is “yes.”  But parents don’t act alone. Many other institutions such as schools, daycare centers, youth programs, faith communities, sports and recreation programs – as well as a steady stream of media messages – help to shape notions of gender and reinforce larger gendered power imbalances.

Even when parents have an understanding of these important issues and want to loosen the gender box constraints with their kids, they often continue to nudge their children toward narrow and limiting – and even damaging and stereotypical notions of gender. For some, this begins while the baby is still in utero with tests that determine the baby’s gender.  This modern-day practice often kick-starts the selection of pink for girls and blue for boys as clothes, room décor, toys, books and baby shower gifts.

So what are parents and other caring adults in the lives of kids to do to interrupt this pattern?

One way is to choose neutral colors and to choose toys for the kids in your life that support healthy development for girls and boys. Research shows that the toys children interact with can help them to develop cognitive, spatial and empathy skills as well as help them to learn about social play and relationships with others. But toys are also highly gendered as shown in ways that toy manufacturers and marketers define “girl toys” and “boy toys.” Toys that are marketed to girls tend to include dolls, fashion accessories, kitchen utensils and other domestic items – and often involve lots of shades of pink. Toys for boys tend to include action figures, monster trucks, weapons and sports equipment and usually involve shades of blue and other primary colors. The bottom line is that for healthy overall brain development, boys and girls need opportunities to develop a wide range of skills – and the toys they play with can make a difference.  Parents and other adults can nurture healthy brain development through the toys you buy for the kids in your lives.

Kane contends in her book that the complex and hard work of trying to navigate around the gender trap is well worth the effort – and that it ultimately helps to create a world that is more caring and just.

Michigan State University Extension provides opportunities for adults to learn more about these issues – including ways that gender and other aspects of human differences are linked to issues of bullying, bias and harassment. For more information, check out a new initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments.