Pink, Blue or Maybe Yellow?

Despite being in the 21st century, today’s generation of toddlers still grow up among gender stereotypes. How can you make sure your little one does not feel pressured to fit a mould?

words melissa teh illustrations seow soo shya

Every parent’s utmost concern is to have a healthy baby. Yet, many expectant parents also eagerly await the day their ultrasound alerts them of their baby’s gender.

There is nothing wrong with being excited about discovering whether you are having a little boy or a little girl on the way just so you can picture more accurately how your new family will be.

However, if you are the type of parent who waited to find out just so you could prepare to paint the nursery pink or blue, this article will serve as good food for thought.

Ladies & Gents

Today, we live in a world where many things are categorised and segregated by gender.

We have learned to respect some of these boundaries such as separate toilets and same-gender dormitories.

However, there are also categories we are beginning to question. For example, is there a need for a boys’ and a girls’ section when it comes to toys? Why are the female toilets so often pink and the male toilets usually a corresponding blue? Why are we inclined to imagine a doctor as male and a nurse as female?

Most importantly, how do these distinct separations by colour, characteristic and even occupation affect a growing infant? Is gender neutrality the way to go?

Tough Boy, Sweet Girl

Drawing too clear a line between genders proves tricky when dealing with young infants.

Studies have shown that when an infant was labelled as a girl, the baby received more praise and was carried more often. However, when the same infant was labelled as boy, adults exercised more restraint, perhaps to foster a stronger sense of independence often associated with males.

Parents impose their values and ideals on their children, which starts from infanthood but may continue well into their teenage years and even adulthood.

Girly Boy, Boyish Girl?

The concerns of many parents stem from the gender stereotypes upheld by society in general. Even if you do not subscribe to gender limitations at home, the real world may not be as accepting.

“Especially for Asian countries, it takes longer for one to accept gender neutrality because it takes root into culture norms,” explains Daniel Koh, a psychologist from Insights Mind Centre.

Some parents have even gone to the extent of seeking to get their young children diagnosed for atypical behaviour which does not link to their gender.

“Every year, I see a few young children who are referred by their parents to treat their “tomboyish” ways or their “effeminate” manners. Parents are worried that their children will suffer from societal disapproval if they do not adhere to their stereotypical gender roles,” shares Dr. Vanessa von Auer, clinical director of VA Psychology Center.

Gender Restrictions

Due to the stereotypes dictated by society, many Singaporean parents are attuned to giving negative and unsupportive reactions when their sons request to enrol in ballet lessons or when their daughters decide to join the school’s football team.

When it comes to emotions, parents also seem to expect sons to cry less. “Parents might tend to tell their sons, “You are a boy, you have to be brave” and this reinforces the belief that boys should be emotionally restrained,” notes Eve Tam, a senior psychologist from National University Hospital.

“Limiting their emotion experience and expression simply based on gender can be unhelpful. This is because they are likely to repress their negative emotions or experiences, which may eventually result in depression or even aggression,” warns Tam.

A Lasting effect

In fact, according to a study conducted by the American Psychological Association, even academic subjects have gender assigned to them.

The study’s findings revealed that parents were inclined to assume that Science was less interesting and more challenging for their daughters than for their sons. This was despite no actual difference in science-related grades.

Parents may be surprised to know how this gender bias during a child’s early schooling days has a lasting effect.

According to another research study conducted by Pennsylvania State University, which sought to examine gender-typed occupational expectations, female children whose parents reported low perceptions of their mathematical abilities were 66 percent less likely to choose careers in male-dominated job industries.

You may doubt the repercussions of early gender stereotyping to be this extreme or serious. However, it is undeniable that highly encouraging a certain activity, toy or colour in your infant’s earliest stages greatly limits your child by excluding every other possible choice.

Playtime Play-mix

In 2013, Sweden added a gender-neutral pronoun as their official third pronoun to be used for objects and people who do not wish to be identified by their gender.

Gender-neutral parenting does not have to go to such extremes; there is no need to refer to your child as “it”. Gender-neutral parenting can start from something as simple as allowing a varied range of toys in your infant’s first playroom.

“A doll will offer as much value in a boy’s development as toy cars will for a girl. Yet, parents limit their kids because of their own stereotypes,” says Carrie Lupoli, international consultant in parenting and education, and Fisher-Price “Power of Play” Ambassador.

“I make sure to tell my girls how it does not matter if it is blue or pink. If you like it, you play with it. As an educator, I knew that a variety of different toys makes sense for kids,” she adds.

Best of Both Genders

As parents, it is also essential to exhibit less stereotypical behavior within the household. For example, fathers should be equal partners in parenting responsibilities.

Fathers should also take the initiative in helping out with housework just as many mothers today have full-time jobs as well.

“We do not have “girl” roles or “boy” roles in a house. It is very important for us as parents to be modelling gender-neutral roles in the house. I want my children to know that their decisions either to have a career or be a homemaker are not limited to gender stereotypes. It starts with what they are used to seeing at home,” shares Lupoli.

“Essentially, parents just need to relax. Expose your children to as many things as possible without thinking about stereotypes,” she advises.

So the next time your daughter picks out a Science encyclopaedia instead of a princess fairy-tale, introduce her to famous female scientists like Marie Curie or Rosalind Franklin.

And the next time your son asks to try on his sister’s tutu skirt, share a fun fact about how Scottish men wear kilts as part of their traditional costume.

Melissa Teh — Rumoured to have learned to speak even before she could walk, Melissa has had an affinity with words and language since her toddler years. Now an English Literature graduate from Nanyang Technological University, she believes that writing empowers her to express her individuality in the form of her memories, ideals and opinions. Beneath her dreamy exterior is a passionate bookworm who strives to be confidently versatle, hopefully powerful and always meaningul in her own writing.

This text was originally published August-October 2014 series of little magazine. Credits for the images to illustrator Seow Soo Shya.

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