I still remember a time not so long ago when my five-year-old nephew had developed a fascination for all things supposedly ‘girly’. He loved the colour pink, and everything that sparkled. When the other kids played ball around us, he would linger and want to practise braiding the hair of all the ladies in the house in the most creative ways. He went to a ballet class where he was the only boy and shone like a star.
He is seven now, and though his love for ballet has faded, Nutcracker still remains his most frequently watched film. He goes to a jazz class with both boys and girls, and enjoys his daily dose of running around and rough and tumble play in the park. He doesn’t volunteer to braid our hair as often, but still makes the most astute observations about our change of hairstyle or dressing.
He is also the most sensitive and emotionally perceptive little boy I know. Being raised by parents who have never felt the need to raise their boys as ‘feminists’ or ‘footballers’, but simply left free to explore the possibilities between those or any other categories, he is finding his own place in the world.
Just as news of gender-based violence and discrimination bombards us in the most disturbing ways, so does an almost combative wave of protest against it, ensuring that a narrative of antidote also exists in parallel. For every rape we hear about, there is also the ensuing protest march. For every ‘objectifying’ statement made about women, one also hears its ‘liberating’ polar opposite. For each time a man commits violence against a woman, there is an exhortation to men everywhere to ‘man up’ to being respectful and sensitive.
But how do young minds make sense of these two extreme positions and arrive at the one they wish to live by? And how do parents find their own sense of balance between ‘politically correct’ and comfortable parenting around these sensitive issues?
Here are some things you can do to sensitise your children to gender equality in your day to day:
- Stereotypes set in early. Buying dolls for the girls and bats and balls for the boys, or doing up their rooms or wardrobes in all pink or all blue, are stereotypic overloads we don’t even realise we are infiltrating our young minds with. Right from infancy, raise your children in an atmosphere of curiosity and freedom. Allow them to explore a range of possibilities, identities and choices as they grow up, with no judgement attached
- Be aware of the subtle ways in which you may be creating a gender bias in your child. Telling bedtime stories embedded with gender stereotypes, such as princesses in need of protection by princes, encouraging children to pick up toys only from the ‘girls’ or ‘boys’ sections at the toy store, telling your son that he needs to ‘protect’ his sister because ‘she is a girl’, and involving only boys in sports, repairs or manual work, are some examples.
- Teach them to question gender roles and stereotypes in the world around them. Why do you think the character in this movie made that choice? What could be the consequences of such a choice, for themselves and others? Could there be another choice he/she could have made? The next time they express a wish to ‘keep the girls out of it’ or buy that blue Kinder Joy™ instead of the pink one, ask them why they want to make that choice, and help them see another perspective.
- Model it! Most of what children pick up comes from what they see around them. If they see their parents share household chores and outside jobs in an atmosphere of understanding and fairness, the message they are consistently getting is that this is how it is done.
- Make sure roles and responsibilities keep interests and abilities in mind, and are not based on what girls or boys ‘ought’ to do. If your little girl enjoys cooking and baking, by all means encourage her to try her hand at it, and if your son is good with electronic repairs, let him enjoy the responsibility. Let them know that they are free to experiment with the other role as and when they like.
- And finally, remember that promoting equality irrespective of gender, caste, skin colour or economic status, may be more important than promoting equality based on gender alone. Men and women are different, not necessarily equal in every way, just as no two people are or can be equal in every way. But that difference does not warrant discrimination. That is the message to focus on.
Among us are women who are great drivers and mountain climbers, men who are amazing chefs and have an impressive sense of design, and perhaps what allowed each of them to be all they wanted to be, is someone who believed in their worthiness as people, not as men or women. Let us raise our children in this spirit then, where we see and value them for who they are, beyond categories of boy or girl or any other.