A girl who turns up to school dressed head-to-toe in pink will probably pass unnoticed. If a boy does the same, he will inevitably face stares and potentially taunts. Even the most non-traditional parent would think twice about exposing their son to that. Yet science shows that submitting to gender stereotypes has negative effects on our children – on their behaviours and attitudes as they grow into adults. In the next few years, the impacts on brain development will emerge too.
Children start paying attention to gender differences much earlier than some parents realise, according to psychologist Christia Spears Brown, the author of Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue. “Society emphasises that gender is important really early in a kid’s life,” she says. “We label it a lot in our language – we use gender as nouns all the time. So we frequently say ‘oh, there’s that girl’ or ‘come on boys, let’s go get in the car.’” Research suggests children’s recognition of gender is more due to adults pointing it out than any innate awareness of it.
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At the same time, children start seeing the roles their parents inhabit in the household as typical ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ roles, and learning that toys and clothes are divided into pink for girls and blue for boys. While 2016 research by the Institute for Engineering and Technology found that some online retailers are phasing out the labelling of toys for ‘girls’ and ‘boys’, some researchers claim toys are more gendered than they were half a century ago. In the IET study, nine out of 10 girls’ toys were pink and toys with a science, technology, engineering or maths focus were three times more likely to be targeted at boys.
What’s concerning about this is that toys aren’t really “just toys”, says Brown. The skills children learn through play actually shape their development. In the next few years, she predicts, brain-scanning studies will start to help us understand how these early experiences shape neural development, leading to sex differences.
So how can parents rally against traditional gender roles? We can make smarter choices about toys – that’s the easy part – but we also have to model non-stereotypical behaviour in our parenting, for example, showing that dads cook, clean and do school drop-offs too. Rather than pretending the stereotypes don’t exist, Brown advises we teach our children about them and how to recognise them. “So if a boy chooses to wear the pink shirt,” she says, “he’s also equipped to talk to other people about what gender stereotypes are.”