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Sugar and Spice, Slugs and Snails: talking to children about gender stereotypes

Educator and mum of three girls Helen Jones explains why she thinks it is so important to talk about gender stereotypes with children and teenagers

My childhood started in the brown and yellow seventies and morphed into the austere early 80s. Gender equality was still a battle, but the world around me seemed to be embracing toys for both genders, such as Lego, and unisex looks. Photographic evidence shows that my brother and I had very fetching matching corduroy dungarees.

‘Entering toys shops with my kids is often a strange and worrying experience’

Fast forward 30 years and I am now the parent of three girls, aged nine, seven and five. Entering toys shops with my kids is often a strange and worrying experience, divided into blue sections for boys, with action figures, construction toys and sports equipment and pink for girls, with dolls, drawing sets and make up. It appears that in the 21st century, gender stereotypes are still going strong.

Go to a children’s clothes shop, and you will find it divided into boys and girls, even for babies.  The colour divide is even starker than in toy shops – and also the style of clothing – tough jeans with knee reinforcement for the lads and skinny jeans without pockets for the girls. Messages on clothes can also be problematic. For example, a supermarket had T-shirts with the slogans “little man, big ideas” and “little girl, big smiles” on its shelves. 

This is not to say there isn’t a lot of good going on. In recent years campaigns have called out shops for perpetuating gender stereotypes. The arguments are out in the open and being discussed, and social media has often been a force of good in this debate.

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From my experience, talking about gender stereotypes with kids is the key. I can’t deny that with three daughters the last couple of years in my house have been a whirl of purple and pink, of princesses and dolls, cupcakes and unicorns. Well – apart from my youngest daughter, who is obsessed with lions. She quite often finds herself dressed in so-called boy’s clothes and shoes which come in the bright yellows and greens she prefers. This has opened up discussion when out shopping with my daughters, and helped them to become aware of how marketing in shops is trying to pigeonhole them.

Helen (right) and family in the 'austere' 80s

Children instinctively ask questions about the world around them. These questions can prompt all sorts of discussions about gender roles. For example, my daughter wanted to know why all her primary school teachers were female. This was a good springboard from which to talk about what types of jobs you could aspire to have as you grow older. I believe it is important that we teach our children that boys can grow up to do caring jobs, and girls can grow up to do to dangerous jobs, or vice versa. It is not about your gender – it is about what you aspire to become.

‘As an educator I have a duty to challenge gender stereotypes’

I have worked in education for the past 20 years. I think that schools have an important role to play in challenging stereotypes. Schools should be safe spaces in which all pupils can explore and learn. As an educator I have a duty to challenge gender stereotypes in a responsible way. Teachers can create a forum for these discussions across the curriculum. For example, books such as The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams, or classics like The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler by Gene Kemp are brilliant ways to introduce conversations about gender.

My oldest daughter, 9, is entering that awkward age of tweendom, and has the developing relationship with digital media which that brings. She is already hooked on social media such as YouTube, and enjoys watching pop videos on her Kindle. It won’t be too long before she has her own smartphone and begins using apps such as Instagram and Snapchat. 

As she enters adolescence, I hope she will continue to question gender stereotypes, and that she can embrace her own identity rather than one she feels pigeonholed into. I hope she does not get too hung up on body image – and that her Instagram feed is not filled with posing bodies but contains pictures of her interests and hobbies

‘It is important that schools give children a forum to discuss gender issues’

For this to happen the conversations we have as a family need to continue. My daughter also needs to have the opportunity to talk about these issues in school. It is important that schools give children a forum to discuss gender issues in a constructive and supportive space. Campaigns such as Dove’s Self-Esteem Project give teachers resources to talk about body confidence and more. Giving children the tools to develop a balanced understanding of gender issues will hopefully prepare them to make informed decisions when using social media. 

Through dialogue we can support young people to never give up the questioning and give them the voice to create a more gender equal future.