Walking around in a Pottery Barn Kids’ I watched as Charlie bounced from toy to toy. An adorable little boy around 4 years old was playing in a kid’s kitchen set. He came up to me and very plainly stated “Boys get tattoos on their muscles!” He was very matter of fact about it, it was a fact of life for him. Boys have big muscles, and they also get tattoos. No telling where, specifically, this bit of inspiration came from, and although the statement is not false it does pigeon-hole the world a little bit. I smiled, turned to him and said “Some boys do get tattoos on their muscles, but some boys don’t, and some girls get tattoos on their muscles too!” He furrowed his little brow as he stared at me. I could tell he was taking it in. You could see the wheels turning in his brain. After a few seconds he nodded and moved on. It’s a tiny little lesson that will allow that little boy to see people that fall outside that stereotype for the rest of his life.
Something I hear all the time on this subject is “Stereotypes come from somewhere”. That’s true, they do. It’s probably true that this little boy has seen more men with tattoos than women. It could be that it’s more likely to be a topic of conversation to men, but there’s another reality that we need to make our kid’s aware of. People are not one dimensional, there are so many people who don’t fit into those stereotypes at all, and those people are people just the same- there’s nothing wrong with them. I want my daughter to know that she can be herself, no matter who that is. If she decides to wear dresses , curl her hair and have lots of children, well that’s fine with me. But if she decides she wants to be an athlete or become an HVAC specialist or work on cars for a living, I want her to know that she can and that it’s not only okay, it’s amazing! We can’t keep perpetuating these stereotypes to our kids and expect them to be happy, productive adults.
Most stereotyping comes out of our mouths without us even knowing it! We inherently talk about different things with our little girls than we do with our little boys. The best way to help our kids see the complexity of the world is to expose them to more! With Charlie I make a point to make toys available to her that involve building things and cars as well as baby dolls, a play kitchen and art supplies. Primary colors are not just for little boys and there’s nothing wrong with a boy learning to sew, arrange flowers or take care of a baby. You can’t shield your kids from gender stereotypes, but you can talk about them. When they say something that involves a stereotype, point out someone they know who doesn’t fall into that category. Show them that it’s not always true and that it’s okay.
The truth of the matter is Charlie will probably end up being somewhere in the middle on the spectrum of housewife with 5 kids to mechanic. If she ends up anything like her momma she will probably love being outdoors and camping around a fire and also enjoy playing with makeup and dressing in beautiful gowns. She doesn’t have to be one or the other and she shouldn’t feel weird or wrong for wanting to know how things work or being able to build a fire. Be careful of the words you use when talking to or around children, be mindful of the topics you choose when speaking to them and help them see all of the beautiful, wonderful differences in each of us. Choosing our words carefully doesn’t make us weak or overly sensitive. It just means that we’ve become more self-aware and that we’re holding ourselves accountable for the effect our words have on the most impressionable among us, our children.