This is an article published originally on the New York Family by Dr. Joe Taravella, a licensed clinical psychologist at NYU Langone Medical Center–Rusk Rehabilitation. His personal website is: drjoetaravella.com. I love it. Gender identity – especially gender fluidity/flux/queer/etc. are finally being given conscious attention, which is good considering it subconsciously affects every facet of our lives. Dr. Joe’s article teaches parents to give their kids a chance to learn who they are without [this one aspect of] society’s programmed expectations.
“While our society has moved away from traditional and antiquated gender roles, such as the model of a mom who is a homemaker (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and a dad who works outside of the home, how far have we really advanced in the area of gender segregation with children’s toys and clothes? Children learn early on in their development that certain toys and particular colors are intended for specific genders, and the princess fantasy culture becomes enmeshed with girls’ playtime in the blink of an eye. And while we all prefer to make choices and have control in our lives, do we really to want put a pink or blue stamp on our child’s forehead and limit their choices of toy and play preferences?
In this ever-changing world, we are seeing an increase of families with diverse family structures, two-income households, and all family members sharing in household responsibilities. So why are we still stuck on trucks for boys and dolls for girls? We need to move away from the notion of gender-specific toys and create a nurturing environment for children to freely discover and play that’s aligned with their innate interests.
Outdated gender roles hinder exploratory play, stifle creativity, create a roadblock to sharing among boys and girls, and deny children the opportunity to develop skills across genders. And while the well-intentioned parent may believe they are saving their children from being teased by their peers, over time, children believe they are not allowed to express themselves and that who they are is not as important as how they compare to others in society’s eyes. So if we look at life with ‘gender-goggles,’ are we truly giving our children equal opportunities in life during their formidable years? As we fast-forward to adulthood, we see women thriving in their careers but not earning equal pay, and men become more lonely and depressed (resulting in higher rates of suicides compared to women), so how do we counteract traditional gender roles?
Creating a gender-neutral environment can foster gender identity and gender expression. According to a 2005 study by Judith Blakemore and Renee Centers, “Characteristics of Boys’ and Girls’ Toys,” the authors concluded that, “children of both genders would benefit from play with toys that develop educational, scientific, physical, artistic, and musical skills.”
Parents can foster and support a gender-neutral environment in their home and encourage their children to be anything they want to be. Parents can be as creative as wish and include gender-neutral toys into their homes such as play-doh, toy telephones and cash registers, building blocks, play kitchens, tossing games, puzzles, sock puppets, musical instruments, and board games to name a few. Children should be allowed to discover and explore their gender preferences, gender identity, and gender expression. Developing this strong sense of self will enhance their overall self-esteem and allow them to be creative, imaginative, and feel capable. As parents, we want to give our children the key to the world; so giving children the opportunity to play across all gender roles helps them develop skills they may ‘traditionally’ not be encouraged to explore. In doing so, boys can be more nurturing and verbally expressive, which can lead to having better interpersonal relationships with girls and women and being better fathers. Girls can develop spatial skills when engaged in non-traditional roles and grow up feeling more confident in careers relating to science, technology, engineering, math, and construction. Ultimately, fostering your child’s innate preferences of what interests them will be most beneficial to their overall growth and development. And kudos to those companies who organize children’s toys and apps by category of play or age, instead of gender in an effort for children to develop their own identity regardless of their gender.
So, are boys and girls different? Sure, but so are girls from other girls and boys from other boys. What I tell each child is that they are unique and special in their very own way, as there’s no other ‘you’ in this entire world; so just be your special ‘self’ and reach for the stars, no matter what color of the rainbow they happen to be.”