Sally Dear, founder of Ducky Zebra, looks at the impact gender stereotypes can have on children and provides five small steps we can take to lift them…
Have you ever noticed that girls' clothes are often pink, cute and impractical? While boys’ clothes are often blue, bold and adventure seeking? Or that girls’ clothes may contain messages of love and friendship, while boys’ clothes may contain messages of heroism and confidence?
While these differences might seem harmless, they’re prevalent across the high street. And this presents a problem. Why? Because gender stereotypes can limit a child's opportunities and future.
But my boy hates the colour pink
Naturally some children prefer one colour (or activity, or toy) over another. But so much of this is influenced by their early years: the books they read, the toys they play with, the clothes they wear, the TV they watch and the language they hear. Between the ages of 2 and 5, children are ‘gender detectives’ trying to make sense of the world around them. They absorb things at lightning speed, including: the colour code of pink for girls and blue for boys; the toy ‘rules’ of dolls and prams for girls and tractors and balls for boys; and the behaviour traits of kind, pretty girls and strong, confident boys.
By the time they’re six, most children have reached a fixed view on the world, and their place within it. As Lifting Limits state, “Once the idea of ‘girl jobs’ and ‘boy jobs’ or ‘pretty girls’ and ‘strong boys’ take hold the gender unequal outcomes seen later in life become almost inevitable.” This can include their career choices, mental health, behaviour and pay.
By removing these gender stereotypes we help to open up more opportunities for our children.
The good news is that it’s not too late
The good news is that we can reverse learned behaviour. I’m not suggesting we all buy pink clothes for our boys tomorrow (unless of course we want to), but that we take small steps to challenge these stereotypes. In doing so, we can create more opportunities for all children, whatever their gender, to enjoy traits such as confidence, empathy and kindness.
5 small steps to creating big change
Children often ‘police’ one another, making sure their friends follow the gender rules they’ve learned. By setting an example and questioning stereotypes ourselves, we can empower our children to do the same. It might be as simple as saying “Why can’t boys wear pink? Grandpa does”, or “Why can’t girls be scientists? Aunty Kiri is”.
Little changes in our language can make a big difference. Rather than saying ‘boys and girls’ for instance, we can say ‘children’. Similarly, we can replace ‘mums and dads’ with ‘families’. These small changes can help to highlight the things we have in common, rather than focusing on our differences.
It’s useful, every now and then, to take a step back and take a look at the stories we’re reading with our children. Are there examples of caring fathers, working women, energetic girls and kind boys? If not, don’t despair. We can use the books we have to trigger a discussion with our children about stereotypes, and even get them to retell parts of the story in a more inclusive way.
We can help children by redefining what ‘brave’ means. It doesn’t have to mean risk-taking, thrill-seeking heroes. But instead, it can take courage to be kind and caring. “It was really brave and kind of you to go and play with that child in the park.”
I know it’s not always easy, especially when gifts and hand-me-downs are pouring in. But by being conscious of these stereotypes and actively trying to avoid them when we buy, we’re helping not just our own children, but those around them. It can even give you more options when it comes to shopping for your children. Win-win.
About the author, Sally
Sally is a coffee-fuelled mum of two, and founder of Ducky Zebra.
Ducky Zebra launched in October 2021, and is a small start-up with a mission to inspire kindness and confidence in children, no matter what their gender, through colourful, sustainable clothing. Ducky Zebra’s unisex designs are fun, colourful and free from gender stereotypes. All items include an embroidered splash motif, often hidden inside a pocket, as a reminder to be kind and confident even at times when this might be hard.