Why Are We Gender-Stereotyping Our Children?

Our generation was weaned on "Free to Be ... You and Me," where boys could cry and play with dolls and girls could do anything. Not anymore.

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One of the stories Hillary Clinton has told at various events involves a letter she sent to NASA when she was a young teen, expressing interest in someday becoming an astronaut. She received a response from the space agency saying they had no plans to ever employ women as astronauts. Naturally, because Clinton hasn’t been able to produce a copy of the letter (which would have been sent around 1960), some have written off the story as a lie.

What is indisputably true: NASA did send this kind of letter to girls asking about going into space. Buzzfeed found and published one a few years ago. Dated 1962 and addressed to a Miss Kelly, a University of Connecticut student, it says “we have no existing programs concerning women astronauts nor do we contemplate any such plan.”

Whether you believe HRC’s story may not necessarily affect your feelings about her as a potential president. But this much is certain: A young Hillary would be the only current major candidate for the presidency who could have, and did experience this kind of sexism. And it’s why so much of the opposition to her newly announced candidacy has already been either covertly or overtly sexist. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre called a potential Hillary Clinton presidency “demographically symbolic”—the full quote bashed both Clinton and Obama; he said, “eight years of one demographically symbolic president is enough.”

As if it’s not symbolic that all previous presidents were White men.

I don’t really want to write about electoral politics—it’s such a crowded field already—but it’s worth noting that some little kids are routinely told that if they work really hard, they might someday become President of the United States. My own 8-year-old, when someone mentioned this to him recently, recoiled and said it sounded like a terrible job, but still: Until fairly recently it’s been a category that automatically excludes all girls, and boys of color. (As a little girl, I wanted to grow up to be a U.S. senator, which I knew was possible because my state had a female senator.) Now, at least, we have the example of President Obama and may yet get another President Clinton.

But just as electing our first Black president didn’t solve racism in this country—in fact, at times it seems to have lit a fuse under the behinds of every unreconstructed White racist in the country—electing a woman president in no way will solve sexism.

In fact, I really feel as if it’s getting worse, at least where our kids are concerned.

Those of us who grew up in the 1970s had Free to Be … You and Me, with its passionate musical rebuke to the gender stereotyping of Dick and Jane books. We learned that grown men could cry, little boys could have dolls, and girls could—and should—try to win the races they entered, run as fast as they could, and not worry about losing out on some bogus Prince Charming. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a fan. Those who grew up in the 1980s may have experienced a slightly less rah-rah feminist upbringing, but they still got to play with non-gendered LEGO.

Not so today’s kids. As Ms. Magazine pointed out two years ago, kids’ toys are increasingly produced and marketed as being for boys or girls only (one little girl in the Ms. article is alarmed that she has accidentally picked up the “boy version” of a plaything she wants). It’s not just toys: Clothing is increasingly so gendered as to make it feel as if we are putting our babies into drag—if it’s not the weird trend of putting bows on bald newborn girls’ heads, it’s the onesies plastered with sexist messages—“I hate my thighs” was the latest to make the rounds. Everywhere you look, there’s someone trying to make sure your child is exhibiting proper gender protocol.

(Yes, I know this isn’t happening everywhere in the same way—parents in hipster bubbles tend to strive toward a more gender-neutral stance, and some parents have embraced behavior and preferences that would be mocked elsewhere. The point is that even these protests, valiant as they are, wouldn’t be necessary if we weren’t living in such a gender-crazed moment.)

Beyond the gendering of consumer items, there’s a burgeoning movement arguing for single-sex classrooms and schools. Although proponents of single-sex education like to claim that they are taking advantage of cutting-edge research into differences between the so-called male and female brains, debunkers point out that much of their evidence is overdetermined, wildly extrapolated from very small studies, or simply pseudo-science. I’m not a neuroscientist, but it’s difficult to read their explanations without hearing echoes of the scientific racism that was so popular a century ago. If you wouldn’t ascribe a child’s skills, passions, and preferences to her race, why would you do it to her gender?

And yet we do it all the time. Nobody is immune to the well-known phenomenon that social scientists call “confirmation bias.” It’s particularly pronounced in childrearing when it comes to gender. Because we assume that all boys prefer playing with trucks, construction equipment, weapons, and sporting goods, when we see a boy playing with those things we see it as evidence that confirms our understanding of the world. Similarly, we think girls naturally tend toward play that is social, nurturing, domestic, and quiet, and we smile when we see them play this way. Those boys and girls whose play preferences don’t fit the stereotype are seen as outliers—not as relevant data points that prove the stereotypes wrong.

The truth is, as every parent knows, each kid comes into the world with her own temperament and personality. Some kids like to be bossy, others are more retiring; some make friends easily, others are shy; some crave rough-housing, others want calm. I have a daughter who simply adored trucks and construction equipment when she was little and a boy who didn’t. As data points on the gender stereotypes about trucks, they didn’t fit the foregone conclusion and therefore were thrown out. A friend’s son, who lit up every time he saw a front-end loader go down the street, was remarked on every day: “That’s a real boy for you!”

As they grow up, kids try to figure out where they fit in, and one way is by gender. As much as I don’t think there is a girl brain and a boy brain, I do think there is boy culture and girl culture, because I’ve seen it in action—kids naturally emulate the adult world and imbibe our expectations of them, and they try to conform to what’s expected. Girls begin to practice their role of social connectors, boys to enact the narrative of competition and winning at all costs. And once again, we parents take that as evidence that we were right all along—that all girls are like that, that boys will, after all, be boys.

I say it’s a shame. Not only because these roles marginalize kids who don’t fit the stereotype, but also because the assigned roles themselves are so stifling and limiting. Put your little girls in sparkly sandals and soon they will stop climbing trees—not because they naturally don’t want to, but because they are hampered by not being in sturdy sneakers like the boys. Tell your boys they are tough little men and after awhile they will discard that tenderness they were born with. And you will have shoved them into a box where they only have access to half of what makes a complete human being.

And I actually think we all know this. No matter what Toys “R” Us would try to convince us of, every parent knows that the best toys of all have no gender at all—blocks and sticks and dirt and buckets to put it in. And we know that all our babies, our toddlers, and our big kids are irreducibly themselves: a collection of strengths and challenges and talents and flaws, just like us. I don’t want to go back to a world that (maybe) told Hillary Clinton she couldn’t be an astronaut—but I would like very much to go back to the time of Free to Be … You and Me and freeform, non-gendered LEGO.


Photos by Jeong Mee Yoon


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