Traditional gender roles: Boys will be boys

A new video and website asks viewers to confront their assumptions about gender identity, and how we're raising our sons and daughters.

Photo: GrabillCreative/iStockphoto

Have you ever caught yourself saying, “boys will be boys”? Maybe it’s after your seven-year-old son and his buddies traipse through the house in muddy boots, leaving a trail of dirt in their wake. Or maybe you watched two little guys duke it out on the ice during a hockey game, and didn’t think much of it. Boys are just programmed that way, right? “What can you do?” we sigh, with a wry smile.

If this sounds like something you’ve said before, then you’re making assumptions based on gender norms — probably without even thinking about it. Even if we don’t mean to pass along our societal assumptions, these ideas about “typical boys” and “typical girls” are rubbing off on our kids, too.

“My younger son was drawn to more domestic play and loved the colour pink, but he very quickly realized that he was not supposed to like those things,” says mom, filmmaker and Ryerson professor Laurie Petrou. “The things that boys are expected to like or do are becoming so suffocating.”

As a response to her sons’ experiences, Petrou has created a new, four-minute video (see below) all about gender identity and breaking down gender norms. Petrou calls her video “Boys Will Be Boys,” which is actually what I wanted to call Emma Waverman’s behaviour story, also about gender identity, which we published in the February issue of Today’s Parent. (“Boys will be girls and girls will be boys” turned out to be way too long! We simply went with “Gender benders.”)

“Gender benders” are kids who don’t necessarily stick to society’s generally accepted ideas about what it means to behave like a boy or behave like a girl. The story opens with a brave little boy named Max, who wears a red dress with hearts on it to school. His mother recalls how she worried about this decision, and how Max’s teacher and classmates would react. (Surprisingly, the girls were the ones who had the most trouble accepting Max’s clothing choices. His male classmates didn’t care at all.)

All too often, we hear from parents who worry that a boy who innocently likes pink (or princesses, or kitchen play sets, or makeup) means that he’s confused about his gender, or is going to grow up to be gay (as if there’s something wrong with that). We don’t, as parenting editors, get many queries from parents worried about their tomboy daughters. Why is it okay for girls to like dinosaurs and soccer, but boys can’t like sparkly shoes and unicorns? (Sparkly shoes and unicorns are pretty darn cool, no matter who you are!) Apparently it’s way more worrisome to have a feminine son than a masculine daughter — which I find very interesting.

Also common is the parent who vows never to let her daughter wear pink, poofy dresses with bows or watch princess movies where the girl can only be saved by a prince or knight in shining armour. And it seems like the parents who keep all that princess stuff out of their house inevitably end up with the “girliest” girls — the ones who adore tutus and tiaras. Is it okay for a parent to decide what’s too girlie? Is it even possible to maintain a gender-neutral home?

Petrou has also built an interactive website where you can see how stuck inside gender norms you are, by assigning certain words and activities on the screen to one gender or the other (like “spa,” “yard work,” “opera,” “shopping” and “ribbons”). Put yourself to the test here!

I found the video both heartbreaking and provocative — even though, in 2013, it really shouldn’t be so controversial.

How do you deal with gender expectations in your household? Please check out our story and join the conversation.

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