Many smart people talked about how to recognize and remedy the barriers confronting our daughters at a recent day-long Washington, D.C., conference on gender stereotypes in media and toys. These people, brought together by the White House Council on Women and Girls, furnished ideas about how to equip girls with the knowledge and tools they’ll need from childhood and into adulthood.
But first, they talked about boys.
This was no accident. Traditional gender stereotypes perpetuated in movies, on TV and in the design and marketing of toys and games do not only affect girls. They also affect boys.
This is a human issue. Parents need to be aware of the problems inherent with gender stereotypes and learn how to help their sons understand them, too.
The conversation is, or should be, about taking an honest look at how society’s outdated definitions of “normal” gender behavior and gender roles potentially limit boys as well as girls. We need to think about and talk about why that’s important.
Attending as a representative for Dads4Change, I was particularly struck by statements from three different panelists at the event which carried a noble title – “Breaking Down Gender Stereotypes in Media and Toys: Helping Our Children Explore, Learn and Dream Without Limits.”
Dr. Michael Reichert, executive director of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives at the University of Pennsylvania, called for a re-invention of boyhood.
“The truth about boyhood is that it was never designed to serve boys, but rather to serve the needs of society,” he said. “It has never had boys’ needs and natures as its primary concern.”
Reichert said parents and society in general need to recast the way we think about socializing boys, that “traditional boyhood” simply isn’t going to work anymore. Instead of encouraging emotional isolation and competitive masculinity, we should “nurture them to match their needs and their nature so they get to be full human beings.”
Educator Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes (a 2002 book that served as an inspiration for the movie Mean Girls) and Masterminds & Wingmen (2014), emphasized the complex inner lives of boys as contrasted with the societal expectation of emotional stoicism.
“Boys are capable of wanting to blow things up, set things on fire, make loud noises, jump off of things, and even make fart jokes – and all fart jokes are funny – and that same boy is capable of deep love, deep feelings, deep confusion and desperately needing meaning in his life,” she said. “Adults are not honest with each other and with ourselves about what we do that labels and boxes boys in.”
Writer and social media professional Charlie Capen, co-founder of the popular entertainment website How to be a Dad, focused on how parents can encourage their kids to pursue their own paths – regardless of society’s gender expectations.
“If your son wants to try ballet,” Capen said, “don’t fight it – follow it.”
Why is this important? Why should we be concerned about the effect of gender stereotypes on the social development of boys?
Because until the cycle is broken, until we recognize and acknowledge how gender stereotypes slot boys into a certain emotional, social and economic path, nothing will change for anyone.
As the father of two young sons, here’s what I’m going to try to do:
When I talk to my sons about potential careers, I will make a point of including in the discussion professions traditionally filled by women. Just as there is no reason a girl shouldn’t aspire to a fulfilling career in science or information technology, there is no reason my sons can’t become nurses or elementary school teachers.
When I talk to my sons about sports, I won’t limit it to the men who play baseball, football, basketball, hockey and soccer. I’ll tell them about Serena Williams and Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Janet Evans and Mia Hamm and Martina Navratilova.
When I talk to them about life, I’ll let them lead the conversation. I want to know what they want. I want to know how they see the world, and their place in it. I want them to know that I care.
The most important thing I’ll do – or attempt to do – is to model behavior that rejects gender stereotypes and the inherent barriers. This will take some work on my part, but I feel better prepared for it now.
The conversation continues.