And on her farm she had a cow…

Two-year-old Zach lives with three older sisters – in a house full of Dora gear, princess outfits and pink everything. No matter. In his hands, a Dora figure becomes Spiderman, a magic wand, a sword, and the pink outfits … well, invisible. Stella, age four loves to draw. She focuses again and again on forming long eyelashes and perfect heart-shaped lips. Her classmate Robbie wields a marker with gusto! Bold strokes and ceaseless sound effects. For him the outcome is inconsequential as long as the bad guy is vanquished. Cliché? Sure, but not so the everyday reality of emerging gender differences in young children. Leaving those of us who strive for gender equity stymied. Our son is who he is! Our daughter, who she is! Couldn’t change ‘em if we wanted to. Still…

Researchers remind us that strong gender identification is a healthy developmental passage among children around preschool age. High on every three- to six-year-old’s “Who Am I?’ list is “I’m a girl!” “I’m a boy!” As their parents, it’s helpful to acknowledge and share in this process of budding self-awareness, of membership in a club.

The dilemma is how to support the development of a sturdy self-image without reinforcing outdated and limiting stereotypes, instead suggesting a world of choice and gender-free opportunity? One thing we know for certain – buying Lucy a truck may be a great idea, but only if she’s truly interested. If not, it will quickly make its way to the bottom of the toy box, soon to be donated to the next school fair. Reading “William’s Doll“ to our Josh – same story. But, just as we convey many other values to our children, we can do so in the realm of gender equity. For example:

  • Songs and Stories: Quality children’s literature and music tend heavily toward male animals, heroes and vehicles. When it’s of no consequence to the story, you, the reader, can take a little poetic license. Make the farmer, the duck, or the car a “she”. No commentary needed, in fact best without. You’re normalizing the fact that it could be either gender and creating a visual image of farmer Sue on her tractor. When the reference is specific – as in those mommies and daddies on the bus – you can also intervene. Daddy doesn’t always “read, read, read” after all!
  • The World of Work: When it comes to our city work force, today’s titles are clear and helpful. We refer to fire fighters, mail carriers, police officers …. and this gives us free rein with pronoun follow-ups. Young children interpret our words with literal deliberateness – a fireman is a man, of course. The other day, three-year-old Corey asked, “Can a ladybug be a boy?”
  • Playtime: “Boys fill the block area!” teachers tell us. Right, so how can you make this valuable activity appealing to both genders? You can include accessory options such as colorful tiles, small fabric squares, and lots of different people, in addition to vehicles and street signs. Along with themed toys – our Doras and Spidermen – be sure your toy box contains open-ended dolls, figures, art and construction materials. Those buses and trucks your toddler pushes can have spaces for people to ride in, even mommies and babies. As for dress-up, see what you can find in fabric stores and thrift shops that will make pretending fun without being prescriptive.
  • Getting Dressed: The best clothing tip I know is “Mix it up!” Your pink loving daughter should have all that sparkles and flows – as well as sweats and sneakers. Derek or Thomas (as in “The Train”) can also wear the unadorned T-shirt not unlike his sister’s. As parents, you can explain your own wardrobe choices, describing, why today, for example, you’re wear a suit and earrings, tomorrow cargoes and flip flops. Sometimes clothes can be just clothes.
  • Helping Out: Who can carry this bag of carrots? Lift this stack of paper? Who can run fast and get a paper towel? Either brother or sister, of course. Who can fold the napkins? Count out 4 forks? Pull up the bed sheet? Not all of us grew up with ‘equal opportunity chores’; it may take a conscious effort.

Finally, why does it matter? The two reasons that jump to my mind are – respect and opportunity. We want our children, as well as our next generation’s grown-ups, to respect each other’s different abilities, tastes and talents. And we wish for them, for our daughters and for our sons, the broadest range possible of career and life style choices.

Years ago, when I was a teacher of four-year-olds, I took the class to visit a ship captain in the South Street Seaport. Her name was Diane. She directed her crew, took us on a tour of her ship, and helped children to hoist a sail. When we returned to school, I had steering wheels and captains’ hats at the ready. Within minutes, I heard a child call out, “You can’t be the captain! Captains are boys!” Lesson learned – one experience, no matter how vibrant and participatory, can’t undo a world of gender expectation. But by consistently offering our youngsters alternative references and models, we convey the indelible message that futures are shaped, not by gender, but by character and commitment.