Being a Parent – When “Walking the Talk” Isn’t Easy

Last night we took our 10 year old son to an open evening at his potential future high school. He’s a great kid – funny, smart in his own unique way, great company and very affectionate. Since he started primary school I’ve been waiting for that moment when he stops leaning in for a hug – because I was told it was inevitable.  Last night, along with around 40 other parents and kids, we piled into an English classroom to hear what the department had to offer. Halfway through the presentation he asked if he could sit on my knee, which he still does now and again. However this time, after saying yes, I suddenly got “the fear”.  Here he was, in a room with the kids who might potentially become his future classmates and he wanted to sit on his mum’s knee. What would they think? Would they remember him as that kid who sat on his mum’s knee in school – the “mummy’s boy”.

And there it was – the dilemma I hear about time and time again when chatting with parents around the topic of gender stereotypes.   Parents who absolutely understand why it’s important that we don’t push our children to conform to the outdated and unhelpful stereotypes that places them into rigid boxes defining what they should do, how they should act and the things that they should enjoy.  Parents who do their very best to let their children be themselves, follow their own interests and forge their own unique path in life.   Parents who every now and again are confronted with the fear that those choices, the things that define their unique and wonderful children, may be the very things that make them the target of other children’s laughter, ridicule or worse.

I remember a friend of mine who had an amazing little boy, who wore his hair long, loved playing football, catching insects and wearing sparkly leggings, t shirts and the occasional tutu. However, when he started school and asked if he could buy a pink sparkly school bag, she said no, worried what the other kids would say.  I remember reading about a woman who was trying her best to consciously raise her child free from gender stereotypes, but who drew the line when he came home from nursery with his nails painted. And then there was me, sitting worrying about my son taking a well earned rest on my knee, searching the faces of the kids around me for any sign of a negative reaction.  I was so disappointed in myself, and felt that I was betraying my lovely, thoughtful, loving wee boy and not “walking the talk” when it comes to the messages that I share in the work I do around gender stereotypes.

My boy – Walking my Talk

Of course these reactions come from a place of love.  As parents we want the best for our children. We want them to be happy and successful. We want to protect them as much as we can from things that will hurt them or harm them. And we know that people can be cruel. That people who step outside the gender boxes we have created as a society can face whispers, laughter and bullying. As parents we want to do whatever we can to keep that from happening to our child.

So how do we reconcile this with our determination that our children should not be limited by gender stereotypes?  In our book, “Challenging Gender Stereotypes In the Early Years” we discuss the importance of discussing gender stereotypes with children, helping them understand where these ideas come from and why it’s ok not to conform. Yet in doing this we can also help prepare children for the reactions of others.  We can do this in a way which demonstrates how much we value and admire the qualities that they have but explains why because of the stereotypes in our society some people might not always be comfortable with it.  We can help them to know that they are not alone by showing them examples of other people who buck the stereotypes – through stories or real life examples – so that they understand that it’s ok to be different in that way.  And we can equip them with the knowledge that they can talk to us, other adults around them, and ask for help when they experience these negative reactions.

Challenging gender stereotypes is not easy. Being a parent is not easy. Being a kid in school who is a little bit different is not easy.  But we can help our children to understand how amazing they are and navigate and challenge this world of stereotypes with our help, love and support.

We all want what’s best for our children.

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