It is not always easy. But it is worth trying.
‘Weren’t you supposed to raise your child gender-neutral?’ a friend asked me. I looked at my daughter walking around in her pink dress, moving her waist and hands gracefully. Her favorite color is pink. She loves wearing a dress every day. And a lot of clips on her hair. That said, we do try to raise her free of gender stereotypes. It is not always easy. It looks like we lost the war against pinkification. But we try:
Limit the ‘be careful’. Research shows that we tend to say ‘be careful’ four times more to girls than boys after a small mishap. Another study revealed that parents cautioned their daughters about the dangers of a playground fire pole significantly more than they did their sons. They were also much more likely to assist them. Then we are surprised when girls grow up to be more fearful than their male counterparts.
I can see my daughters’ caregivers discouraging her from running: ‘Don’t run, be careful.’ They caution her when she is on the slide. I want her to run. I want her to do challenging physical activities that will strengthen both her body and self-esteem. I trust her self-preservation instincts. And I am close to her to catch her if she falls. Kiss it better if she gets scratched. And every time I want to say ‘be careful,’ I bite my tongue.
Be thoughtful with compliments: This is a tricky one. Needless to say that we tend to compliment girls a lot more on their looks and clothes. Soon they learn that looks are what is important to get others’ approval. I cannot resist but show my honest admiration for my daughter’s looks. But I imposed myself a made-up rule. For every ‘looks compliment’ I give, I follow it by five compliments (on different occasions) focusing on other skills. There is so much more to say about her, including her great memory, speaking two languages, dancing, singing and painting.
When she is creative, rather than evaluating her art (‘that’s a beautiful painting’), I show her how her art is making me feel (‘I love to see you paint’). That’s because I want her to create stuff for the pure enjoyment of it rather than the result or the external affirmation.
I am trying to make the compliments descriptive of the effort she put in rather than focused on natural traits. For example, say ‘you drew a circle’ rather than ‘you are so smart.’ Praising effort has been proven to foster a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset.
A fixed mindset is when the child believes that their traits such as intelligence are fixed. Success is the affirmation of this intelligence. Failure, as well as effort, means they are not smart. If they were, they would not need effort. And of course, they would not fail. This type of mindset can make them unhappy later in life as they will be in constant stress to prove themselves. Those with the growth mindset just interpret failure as a sign that they need to try harder. As an opportunity to learn something new. They are more interested in growing their skills than proving they have them.
I also avoid using general, non-descriptive affirmation such as ‘well done’. If she does what I ask her to do, I say ‘thank you.’ I avoid saying things like ‘this was not ladylike,’ or ‘boys will be boys.’ I never say ‘good girl’ as it can be a very limiting label. Let’s be honest, not always doing what I want her to do does not mean she is a bad girl.
‘Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office’ became an international best seller. It points out 101 behaviors that girls learn in childhood that later hold them back in their careers. Such behaviors include not being loud, apologizing too much and always seeking permission.
Set the example. Both mummy and daddy share the housework and childcare in our household. We both work outside the house. The person that helps us with the housework is male. As James Baldwin said, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” We can shake the stereotypes in households where there is a stay-at-home parent as well. It just needs a conscious effort.
Toys & Activities: I offer my daughter a variety of toys including both cars and cuddlies, legos and dolls. Also, a variety of activities to choose from including swimming, dancing, football, and cooking. She can pick and choose, but I should not limit her choices to start with. I plan to do the same with my son when he arrives.
Stories & Fairytales. In most traditional tales like Snowhite, Cinderella or Little Red Riding Hood the girl is saved by the man. We need new stories where the heroine can show some problem-solving skills. A study of 6,000 children’s books published between 1900 and 2000, found that just 7.5% had female protagonists. Barbie pulled back the ‘Barbie, I can be a computer engineer’ book in 2014. It depicted Barbie as a useless engineer, needing the boys’ help to code.
I have not figured a way around this issue. I came across the Kickstarter success ‘Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls’, but it is not launched yet. Any suggestions for good books bashing the ‘princess’ stereotype are welcome.
We do live in a sexist world. I have learned it the hard way in business. Awareness of the gender issues is rising every day. One example is the current outcry for the sexist media coverage of the Olympics.
Obama recently wrote that ‘We need to keep challenging the attitude that raises our girls to be demure and our boys to be assertive — that criticizes our daughters for speaking out and our sons for shedding a tear.’ It is a good summary.
It is not always easy. But it is worth trying. That way, our kids will grow up to be freer than we are. They will not only learn to play the game by the rules, but change the rules of the game. They will have more options to pursue their happiness and fulfilment.
This article was originally publshed on HuffPost.