Theme   Exclude a girl from a boys' game
Category   Relationship between friends

Your son and two of his friends play knights in shining armour when a young girl comes in and asks if she could have a sword to play with them. The threesome refuses saying that only boys can be knights but they tell her she can play a princess. Disappointed, she tries to convince them she would be a worthy knight, but she fails; she then comes to you for help.

Real Life Situation

Why do children sometimes develop sexist behaviors?

Who would believe that a 4-year-old child can develop sexist stereotypes? Unfortunately, as soon as a child realizes that there are differences between boys and girls and that certain behaviors are assigned to one gender or the other, even a 4-year-old child can start stereotyping. Beyond the obvious physical differences between boys and girls (for instance, a girl has a vulva and a boy has a penis), girls usually braid their hair, wear dresses and put red lipstick on while young boys simply don't behave like this. Similarly, children discover that boys pee standing up and wear swimming trunks while little girls have to wear either one-piece bathing suits or bikinis with their tops on. Through these behaviors, children naturally believe that certain social norms are assigned to a child's gender, norms that distinguish boys from girls. What children don't realize though is that behaviors are culturally determined and differ from one society to another; for instance, in Africa, men wear dresses! Such cultural distinctions are perfectly healthy and contribute to a child's sexual identification.

But this is different when cultural distinctions become too restrictive or when a child starts developing gender role stereotypes. And this can happen by a simple generalization of a child's observations: for instance, suppose a child only sees men driving trucks; she naturally deduces that only men can actually drive trucks; or when she hears her father say that boys don't play with dolls or her mother say that girls don't play football, again, she will naturally believe that these activities can only be performed by either a boy or a girl. At this young age, children learn a lot by imitating behaviors and they do understand the concept of gender; however they don't have the ability to determine whether or not these gender-related behaviors are justified.

At this age, children have a narrow vision of things. Therefore, assigning behaviors to one gender or the other, suits them perfectly. Many will be very assertive: "Only girls do this, only boys do that!". Others will play some of their games with boys only: for instance, when they play knights in shining armour or war games. Boys that will show interest in girls' toys like dolls for instance, will be perceived negatively by their playmates.

These social and behavioral norms adopted by most young children put a lot of pressure on those who don't fit in. Limited in their choices by their gender, these children will nonetheless try to fit in. Some will seek acceptance by ignoring what they like (e.g., a boy would choose not to play with dolls even though he likes them). Others will choose to speak out: "I have the right to…!", or simply change their behaviors (e.g., a young boy would pull his hair up into pony tails only when he's home as he knows everybody would laugh at him if he did so at the day care center). To encourage a child to become the fullest person possible, it is essential for her to acutely know that boys and girls have many options in their lives, and that's O.K.

Tips for Parents

How can you raise your child to be non-sexist?

  • Be a Good Model
    Be respectful of others and be careful not to stereotype. Try not to adopt sexist behaviors when your child is around. Remember that the way you speak and behave may have a strong influence on your child's behavior. For instance, if your boy tells you he would like to start ballet lessons, your lack of enthusiasm would press him to opt for something that would receive your approval. To prevent this, tell him the reasons why you have reservations and convince him that whatever he does, you want him to be happy: "I want you to be happy in whatever you do; if I seemed a bit reluctant when you first told me, it is simply because at your age, very few boys find ballet dancing interesting."

  • Encourage your child to respect others
    Help your child respect others' opinions and desires. Teach her to respect the choices of others even if these choices don't meet her own ideas. Encourage her to view the roles normally assigned to a girl or a boy from a broader perspective and show her that yes, a boy may enjoy playing with dolls and a girl may be interested in knowing more about auto mechanics than anything else. Correct your child if she makes prejudiced remarks disrespectful of others.

  • Help your child settle her conflicts
    Be present and help your child work out the conflict with her friends. Do not let your child reject a friend she had invited over. Help your child negotiate with her friends so they can find a solution by themselves. Do not view the situation through your own perceptions, but listen to the children and help them find games and solutions that suit their needs. Accept the fact that boys and girls do not play the same way and occasionally, allow your child to play only with boys or girls.

  • Be respectful of your child's choices
    Your son prefers to play with dolls rather than trucks? Or your daughter is more interested in a tool box than a dish set? Do not try to dissuade them to play with their favorite toys simply because these are not girls' or boys' toys. Respect their choices. Similarly, do not impose a doll onto a boy who is "too masculine" or a truck onto a girl who is "too feminine". Simply let your child be.

  • Make your child aware of societal behaviors
    You let your child live her experiences and make her own choices? That's fine but remember you are also the one who guides her. Help her understand the social rules regarding gender roles and teach her how not to be rejected by her peers. Tell her about the risks she may face if she is too outspoken about her "non standard" tastes and help her grow while being fully aware of the limits that are imposed upon us by our social norms. For instance, explain to your boy that he can take ballet lessons, but that his school mates may laugh at him if he wears his dance tights to go to school. On the other hand, encourage your child to be open and tolerant toward children that are different.

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