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Can Parents Raise Preschoolers Without Traditional Gender Roles?

by Alissa Fleck

Maybe your preschool-aged son wants to wear dresses or, when it comes to playing, your young daughter prefers trucks to dolls. While these examples seem contrary to common notions of how children should behave, they don't have to be. Society may reinforce traditional gender roles everywhere you turn, but parents can do a lot toward raising their own children without stereotypical understandings of gender, and ultimately make them feel most comfortable in who they are.

Toys

A great deal of how children initially learn about the world is rooted in play, and according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, before even the age of 3, children are able to begin identifying which toys and types of play -- even which future occupations -- are typically associated with which gender. At this age, children also often begin choosing to play more with kids of their own gender. While factors outside the home, for instance in the preschool setting, may be to a degree beyond a parent's control, at this age children are perhaps most heavily influenced by their parents' behavior. Parents wishing to encourage gender neutrality should therefore promote play that reflects this; for example, buying non-gender specific toys or showing children it's acceptable to play with any kind of toy, regardless of gender expectations.

Behavior

Certain behavioral patterns are associated with gender from an early age -- boys are expected to be more aggressive, while girls frequently learn to take on stereotypically feminine qualities. Modeling gender-neutral behavior -- teaching boys and girls from a young age they do not have to adhere to their genders' traditional dress or customary mannerisms -- helps reinforce the idea that gender roles are constructed. According to Emanuella Grinberg at CNN, encouraging your children to be gender-neutral can result in bullying, and parents frequently side with the norm in order to protect their children. Doing so is in fact misguided and actually protects the bully. While teasing may be painful in the short term, Grinberg argues in the long run, parents adhering to their principles on gender neutrality helps kids more readily accept who they are.

Language

Language is an essential building block for young children, and parents can start breaking down gender barriers early by encouraging the use of gender-neutral language. According to the British Columbia Teachers' Federation, children react strongly to gendered language in understanding what is appropriate. Employing language that does not reinforce traditional gender roles helps eliminate gender binaries or ideas of gender appropriateness. The BCTF encourages avoiding ever referring to just boys or just girls in any circumstance.

Expectations

It's possible to take steps to raise your child without conventional understandings of gender, but there's no predicting the future. Ultimately, despite parenting style, your child will be whoever he is. He could react badly to a system without gender roles, he may embrace it or it may simply make no difference with the factors of the larger world at play. If you choose to raise your preschooler without stereotypical gender roles, you must prepare yourself for the possibility that it will not have the outcome you anticipate.

About the Author

Alissa Fleck is a contributing writer for several community newspapers in New York City. She writes book reviews for an online magazine and hosts a monthly reading series. Fleck has also interned at a literary agency and worked as a university teaching assistant. She holds a B.A. in English and an M.F.A. in creative writing.

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