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My three year old son has picked up some very concrete ideas of the differences between boys and girls. Unfortunately, they're almost all based upon gender stereotypes.

When asked what presents we might buy for a friend of his, a 2-and-a-half year old girl, he responded with "we should buy her dolls, because she's a girl, and girls like dolls". We've never seen this particular girl play with dolls, although the two of them have spent a fair amount of time at her house playing with her toys.

Similarly, my wife should get "flowers, because girls like flowers", and they should be pink, because "pink is mommy's favorite color" (it isn't; my wife doesn't like pink at all, but according to my son, "girls like pretty colors").

It's hard to tell where these stereotypes are coming from, but we're pretty sure it is either from one older boy at daycare, or television shows he watches at daycare, or a combination of the two.

I don't want my son growing up to dislike certain things for no better reason than that he's a boy, and those things are "for girls", but more importantly, I don't want him to make assumptions about what girls he interacts with like based solely upon their gender.

We've tried telling him that not all girls like pink, or dolls, or flowers, and that some boys like pink, or dolls, or flowers, and explained that my wife, in fact, does not like pink, but we met with a fair amount of resistance. Now he agrees when we point that out, but I'm not sure if he understands, or is just agreeing because we kept insisting.

What strategies can we use to combat these stereotypes so that my son doesn't make gross assumptions about what people like and don't like based upon their gender?

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4  
He watches TV at daycare...? –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Nov 15 '13 at 15:30
1  
The TV runs in the background. It's an in-home daycare that we're generally very happy with, the only exception being TV. We lost our previous daycare on extremely short notice, and were lucky to get a spot in this one. By the time an opening was available in a more formal daycare, my son had formed strong friendships and we didn't want to take him out. She shows pre-recorded TV shows and movies in the background, which the kids pay sporadic attention to (unless she turns it off, at which point they all complain). –  Beofett Nov 15 '13 at 15:36
    
That doesn't sound nearly as bad as my first impression :) –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Nov 15 '13 at 20:08

4 Answers 4

Telling him is one thing, showing him is another. He's very likely picking up this "information" from TV and other kids, but if he sees in his every day life that Mom likes the color green best, and Dad makes great bread, and his female cousin loves to play with cars and trucks, he'll figure it out.

We make a point of letting our kids see us do things that aren't gender-conforming, so they see that "girls cook and boys fix things" doesn't fit everywhere. My daughter gets to help me repair household appliances and help her Dad clean the bathroom. My son plays trucks with his sister, and dolls with the kids (male and female, but most of his class is male recently) at daycare.

And when we hear something like "pink is a girl's color" from one of them, we show them Dad's pink polo shirt. When they say "girls have long hair" we point out that Mommy has a short pixie cut.

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This is actually fairly typical for kids around the time they start heading off to school (4 or 5 or so). Your boy might be a little early on the uptake here, but that's okay. Kids start noticing differences at this age. First gender, then race. I knew two kids in a fours classroom that had played together at preschool for two years that all of a sudden realized that each of them was from a different race. The first to notice it suddenly said, "Why are you brown?" one day as though the other boy's skin color had just changed. It is at least partially developmental and not something to be overly concerned about.

It is fairly likely the TV and commercials in particular are playing a role, but it is also likely that he is noticing the girls at preschool are more likely to go for the dolls while the boys head for the trucks (whether this happens because of parent stereotypes or because generally speaking we really are wired this way is still up for debate and countless studies have been done on that but it is how it works). I suggest that in general, you live your lives as you always have, and just discuss these things as they arise. "Many girls Do like pink, but not all of them. Actually, Mommies favorite color is blue." Is a good example of one way to go. Valkyrie gives a few good examples of this. However, if he is noticing patterns, I'd be careful not to diminish that side of it (hence adding, "many girls do. . .")

Additionally, make sure you have a couple of toys available to your son that are of interest to him, but also don't fit the gender stereotype all the time as well (Maybe one doll or something along those lines). Also try to mix up which chores you each do once in awhile so he sees both mom and dad cook, help with laundry, dishes, mow the lawn etc. That way you aren't perpetuating the limits within your household either.

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I don't think your son is stereotyping so much as he is learning to classify. He has noticed there is a difference between girls and boys, and he knows he's a boy and that his mother and some of his friends are girls, and in his mind he is trying to figure out what that means.

Rather than focusing on correcting his stereotypes, or trying to correct them with ideas that suggest there are no differences between genders, you should try turning the discussion to ways that boys and girls ARE different:

  • Girls can grow up to be mommies and boys can grow up to be daddies.
  • Girls have vulvas and boys have penises.
  • When we go to McDonald's there is one bathroom for girls and one for boys. When boys are small they can go in the girls' bathroom if they are with their mom, because their mom is a girl. But usually boys go in the boys bathroom.
  • You're right, a lot of girls do like dolls. Since Karen is a girl, let's ask her if she likes dolls.
  • You're right, a lot of girls like pink. Since Mom is a girl, let's ask her if she likes pink.
  • "Is that person a girl or a boy? What makes you think that?" (Son lists characteristics he observes). "I think you're right. Usually it's boys who wear suits with ties. Plus he has whiskers!" OR "Hmm, yes girls usually wear longer hair than boys, but I'm not sure that is a girl. What else do you notice?"

Understanding finer differences will come at a later age. In fact, a 3-year-old will often find it humorous if you suggest someone is a boy that does not fit in with his brain's rule for what is a boy. I remember one of my kids coming home from pre-school at age 4 saying he wanted his friend Andrew to come to our house to play. I asked which Andrew (since there were 2 in his class), and he said, "Andrew the girl!" Of course, it was the Andrew with shoulder length curly hair instead of the Andrew with short hair like his own.

So not to worry! He's just practicing a new skill which is still a bit rough.

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I like Valkyrie's answer very much: show him counter-examples. I also agree with balanced mama, that his having concrete ideas about the differences between boys and girls is developmental. I'd just add one more thing, looking at it from your son's point of view:

He's noticed that girls and boys are different, and more importantly, that they are treated -- unless you're living in a very enlightened area! -- differently by the adults around them. I'll bet someone recently and oh-so-helpfully told him what those differences "are," and that this little bit of info seems to match what he sees around him, so he's incorporated it into his knowledge of the world. Girls play with dolls, Bella at the daycare is a girl; Bella plays with dolls. It holds up. He may even have gone further and incorporated it into his knowledge of himself. He is a boy; boys like trucks; he likes trucks. Yay! He has mastered the boy-girl difference. It fits in with what he sees of the world, and his world behaves in a way he can predict.

Now you are telling him that "not all girls like pink, or dolls, or flowers, and that some boys like pink, or dolls, or flowers" and insisting he accept that. I bet he loves you very much and wants to believe what you are telling him, but you are contradicting what he has just learned of the world, and rejecting his newly learned categorizing skills, the ones that work! And you not replacing them with anything! No wonder he's resisting your insistance, and is probably more than a little confused. Children at that age like a black-and-white world; something either is a thing or it is not.

What I would suggest is you validate his reasoning and reinforce his sense of identity without reinforcing western cultural stereotypes. Lots of girls do like to play with dolls, but not all, and some like to play with trucks as well. Lots of boys like to play with trucks, but not all. The people who make TV shows sometimes like to do it the easy way, so they show girls only doing things that most girls like, and boys only doing things that most boys like, because they don't want people who watch the show to be confused. The problem is that sometimes the children watching TV shows haven't tried to play with both dolls and trucks and don't know how much fun both can be, so they think they only can play with the toys shown on the TV shows. But real people like all sorts of different things, and we want to let our friends play with the types of toys they want to play with.

With my own child I would (and did) go further: He is a boy because he has boy parts, just like other boys, and he will grow up to be a man like his father. It doesn't matter whether he plays with dolls or trucks, he will always be a boy. (I would not mention trans-gendered people to a three-year old.) Girls are girls because they have girl parts, and will grow up to be women like his mother. (You may want to add here that girls' and boys' parts are private, and it's rude to want to look at them.) I recognize that not every parent wants to open this can of worms when their child is so young, but I think most kids (especially if they are around babies being changed) have already noticed these differences. In a few years he will outgrow the need for a simple world where everything obeys rigid rules, and be open to the multitude of counter-examples you are showing him, but until then, if you base his boy-ness on his physical body, he may find it safe to play with "girl" toys, and to let girls play with "boy" toys.

One more thing, if I may. There are plenty of TV shows that do not show the sexes behaving according to strict gendered stereotypes. (Caillou and Curious George spring to mind.) If the daycare must have TV on, can you have any impact on what shows are shown?

Good luck!

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