The most challenging aspect for Unitarian Universalist parents who see healthy sexuality as a social justice issue can be overcoming perpetuated stereotypes of male and female gender roles. Regardless of how parents raise their children, once a child enters school, the stereotypes of appearance and behavior expectations take hold. While these gender and sexual stereotypes arise primarily because of the brain’s developmental tendency to categorize people as well as things in order to better understand them, these rigid ideas may be reinforced by other children, adults, even teachers at school.
Many a Unitarian Universalist parent who has tried their best to raise a gender-aware and gender-neutral child has been horrified when their son announces at the store, “those toys are for girls, they are all pink.” Or a five-year-old girl announces matter-of-factly, “I can’t play basketball. Basketball is for boys.” Understanding that these ideas are often developed naturally or absorbed from others and are not generally intended to cause harm, we can refocus our children’s thinking with the intention of counteracting the larger forces that perpetuate such images.
In many of these instances, the children may be focusing upon “rules” of behavior that they have either overheard or developed themselves based upon personal experience. Perhaps the boy who linked the color pink with girls has noticed that all his sister’s toys seem to come in pink packaging, and perhaps the girl knows only boys who play basketball.
To stretch their understanding of how these rules are not necessarily true, a parent can take the boy down the aisle of “girl” toys and see if there is anything he might be interested in playing with. Point out how marketers have made the toys pink because they think more girls than boys will be interested in these toys, but explain that girls and boys aren’t limited to playing to with certain kinds of toys. And for the girl who doesn’t know that girls can play basketball, take her to a women’s basketball game at a local university or high school, or watch the WNBA on television so that she can see that girls and, indeed, women play basketball, too.
Young adolescents will continue to absorb societal expectations of what is considered gender appropriate behaviour, and many boys and girls will experience increased pressure to conform to stereotypical gender roles. Middle school–age boys in particular may experience extreme pressure at school or among peers to adhere to sex-role expectations in their choice of toys, clothing, hairstyles, activities, hobbies, or sports. Some girls will cave to this intense pressure and will avoid academic achievement in the hopes of being more attractive to boys, or over-emphasize their physical appearance by wearing excess makeup, clothing, and hairstyles that make them look like the sexual objects they see as images in music videos, on television, and on the Internet.
For those children whose gender identity does not match their biology, or children who are gender non-conforming in general, this can be disheartening and may be the beginning of a lifetime of reconciling who they think they really are with the appearance they present to the world. Supportive parents can continue to stress that stereotypes are damaging and that rules for behavior are often inaccurate while underscoring that others do not necessarily perceive this the same way we do, despite the fact that it can be hurtful. Parents can also continue to affirm their child’s choices in clothing and activities, even if they seem to promote a gender identity different from what the child’s appearance presents. Parents can also help their child find a supportive group of friends who accept the gender identity or non-conformity which is an essential part of your child’s identity.
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Michelle Richards is the author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting (Skinner House, 2010).