Sandy Evangelista, mother of three girls, was flabbergasted when her eldest daughter insisted on wearing dresses all the time and idolized Snow White. You see, Sandy is more of a casual jeans person. “I don’t wear makeup or any jewelry except on special occasions. So we were definitely clueless as to where this behavior was coming from.”
Turns out that Sandy’s daughter was acting out gender messages she’s been receiving since birth. Yes, gender roles are actually shaped by family beliefs and upbringing, then reinforced by society.
“Before, men hunted for food and women gave birth and took care of their offspring,” says Melissa Macapagal-Mercado, a Psychology teacher at the Ateneo de Manila University. “Because of this, traits and characteristics related to these main roles were perpetuated and reinforced by society, such as [in] school and media. They have become myths because people continue to believe in them despite contrary evidence.”
Stereotypes also tend to be prescriptive rather than descriptive. She says, “They tell people that girls and boys should be like this and that and persist because it is easier for people to make judgments based on a category such as gender. It is actually more convenient for us. For example, because we know that women are more caring and nurturing, it would be unthinkable to hire a male preschool teacher or a male nurse.”
Myths have become such deeply rooted beliefs that parents are not even aware of them. Consequently, they are very difficult to break. She lists some gender myths and the truths behind them:
MYTH #1: BOYS DON’T PLAY WITH DOLLS.
Truth: Many parents believe that if their sons play with dolls they will eventually grow up to be gay or effeminate. There is no evidence of such a causal link. Because of this deprivation, most boys grow up to be fathers who are unable to take care of their own children. Role-playing at a young age teaches boys how to care for and nurture their young. “Just as giving blocks to your little boy may develop his skills in manipulating things and preparing him for manly tasks in the future, not doing the same for your little girl may prevent her from developing the same skill,” says Macapagal-Mercado.
MYTH #2: PINK IS FOR GIRLS; BLUE IS FOR BOYS.
Truth: Color has nothing to do with gender. Before the 20th century, people actually dressed their boys in pink and their girls in blue. Pink was associated with the bold and fiery red while blue with the Virgin Mother.
MYTH #3: GIRLS ARE NOT GOOD IN MATH.
Truth: This stems from the general assumption that math, science, and engineering are intellectually out of reach and inappropriate for girls and women. Evidence shows that indeed boys do better in math. However, this is not because of biological makeup but because of parents and teachers expressing their own stereotypical beliefs. When people say that girls can’t do it, then girls tend to believe that they can’t. But girls can be as good in math and science as boys.
MYTH #4: BOYS DON’T CRY.
Truth: Emotions are an important part of being human, regardless of gender. Allowing your little boy to express his emotions—with or without tears—lets him become more attuned with himself. He will eventually learn how to handle frustrations, anger, and other negative emotions more effectively.
MYTH #5: GIRLS ARE FRAGILE AND THUS NEED MORE PROTECTION.
Truth: Parents think girls are more prone to harassment and other violations than boys, and thus need more protection. Yet, both boys and girls face the same dangers from criminals and dishonest people.
MYTH #6: BOYS ARE STRONGER THAN GIRLS.
Truth: Physically, boys and girls can perform the same tasks and activities. Girls can beat boys. And some boys are weaker than some girls. Parents usually tend to roughhouse with the boys and be more delicate with girls. But boys can be equally imaginative in playing house as girls, and girls can be as physical in pretend adventure as boys.
MYTH #7: GIRLS ARE MORE NURTURING.
Truth: Perhaps it is the maternal instinct in women that lead people to believe that girls are more nurturing. But there are boys who are in touch with themselves who turn out to be even more nurturing than some girls. Girls tend to become nurturers precisely because they were socialized to be such.
MYTH #8: GIRLS TALK MORE.
Truth: Studies have shown that girls and boys talk just as much depending on the situation.
THE DANGERS OF STEREOTYPING
Stereotyping can be dangerous because it limits what a child can achieve. “There is so much pressure as it is for our children today and these stereotypes provide added pressure,” says Macapagal-Mercado.
She adds, “Stereotyping is unfair for both boys and girls, however [the extent of stereotyping may] differ in quality or degree. For example, parents are afraid that their little boys will grow up to be feminine and homosexual thus the many prohibitions (e.g. no dolls, no pink, no crying, etc.). On the other hand, there is less fear that girls will turn out to be masculine and lesbian.”
Be conscious of what you say to your kids. “Sometimes, we unknowingly say things like: ‘Girls are not good in math’ and therefore we lower our expectations for our daughters. We should even challenge our children when they hear these stereotypes and give them examples or role models of girls and boys who do not follow the stereotype,” she says.
There are happy, successful men who are in touch with their feminine side who are not homosexuals in as much as there are women achievers who are not lesbians. If you keep this in mind, then you won’t be as likely to pressure your children to conform to gender stereotypes—and will let them take on life on their own terms.
BREAK THE MYTHS
Here’s what you can do to free your kids from stereotypes:
• Value your children equally, regardless of their gender. Avoid favoritism because your son “will carry the family name” or because your daughter is more reliable in household chores.
• Encourage friendship with the opposite sex and have children play various games and activities. Boys and girls who play together are more likely to have a wide range of activities. Boys can be imaginative in their make-believe games, while girls are able to play outside and get that needed exercise.
• Vary the toys you buy for your children. Girls will also enjoy Lego, chemistry sets, and simple machines. At the same time, boys can also like cooking sets and dolls.
• Teach your children how to sincerely express their emotions. Allow them to express their frustrations and feelings instead of bottling them up. Keeping emotions inside can result in outbursts that may be regretted afterwards.
• Encourage both sons and daughters to aim for their highest potential in their study, work, and other abilities. Observe your children’s characters and skills, and encourage them to do their best. Give them the same opportunities to discover their interests. Avoid voicing out your own gender biases. Encourage their curiosity, invite them to explore, and give them room to grow.
• Be consistent with rules and disciplinary action in all areas of behavior. Do not allow boys’ testosterone be an excuse for their aggressive behavior. Let them face the consequences of their actions regardless of gender.
(First published in Good Housekeeping, April 2006; photo by Ocs Alvarez)