He thought gender differences were simple to explain but talking to his five year old helped him realize that’s far from the truth.
It was like any other morning. I was driving my five year old daughter to school as I sang out of tune to any song that popped up on the radio. My daughter laughed as I purposely butchered a Taylor Swift song with my voice and awkward facial gestures. Looking back at it now I’m surprised I didn’t get into a car accident. When I was about to start another song she waved at me to stop. Once I turned off the radio she asked, “Daddy. What’s the difference between boys and girls?” I was just singing and now she wanted to know the difference between genders.
This would have shocked me if I didn’t know my daughter. She is at this stage of thirsting for knowledge and at that moment she wanted to know how boys and girls were different. So I paused to think and before I could respond she blurts out, “I know. Boys can’t have long hair.”
Chuckling I shake my head and tell her, “No honey. Boys can have long hair like girls can have short hair.”
Then like a light turned on in her head she said, “You’re right daddy. I have a friend who has short hair and she’s a girl.”
What’s the difference between a boy and a girl?
This question was a lot simpler when I was a kid. Growing up in the 80’s as a boy I was taught very specific behaviors and traits that made up a boy. Gender differences were considered black and white. Boys played with GI Joe while girls gravitated toward Barbie. Boys kept their hair short while girls wore theirs long. Boys needed to suck in their emotions while it was okay for girls to cry. Boys chores were regulated to outside and lifting heavy objects while girls were supposed to tend to the house.
How did I learn those things?
Surprisingly, none of the things I learned were ever taught to me directly. They were just implied through the shows I watched on TV and the male figures I had growing up. It was the examples of teachers, coaches, parents and grandparents that cemented my belief system. Nothing needed to be said because it was implied. For instance, my daughter probably learned that boys don’t have long hair because I wear my hair short. My wife and I are her first teachers of gender and so how we are different is generalized to the world until she encounters differences in her gender beliefs. When this happens she could become flexible in her gender belief or she can become hardened, which could lead to teasing those who don’t fit into the gender roles she had learned.
This is why it’s important to talk to our children because today gender is malleable. There are men and women who are born a gender that they psychologically don’t fit with and so they have sex changes. There are men and women who dress like the other sex. You have women coaching men sports and men staying home to care for the kids. What you see all around you is the changing definition of gender and those differences are slowly shrinking.
So what are you teaching your children about gender roles? Try to take some time and look at what you do in front of them that could be creating their gender beliefs about the different sexes.
Once you’ve reflected on what you’re teaching your children about gender the next thing you need to do is have a discussion with them. Now I’m a big believer that no child is too young as long as they can communicate verbally you can have a discussion with them, however, you must take into account their understanding. So don’t talk to them like a teenager when they’re five years old.
Here are three tips to remember when discussing gender differences with your children.
1. Have a goal. Before you start talking with your child you should already know what you hope to accomplish. This will help you when faced with questions that are off topic because if your child is like mine they can easily lose focus on the purpose of the talk. Having an end goal will also guide you on what information to share so you don’t throw too much information that may make the conversation longer and confusing then it has to be, which is important when your child has a short attention span.
My goal was to help my daughter have a flexible view point on gender because of the changing world we live in. I wanted her to understand that what it means to be a boy and girl is not black and white. That both genders are allowed to do similar things like growing long hair or working in construction. In the end, I hoped she would realize that genders have more in common then differences.
2. Listen. When talking to your child you need to make sure you listen to what they believe the gender differences are first. Don’t assume they don’t know because if you give them information they already have you run the risk of them seeing the conversation as a lecture. When this happens they could end up tuning you out and shutting down their desire to have an honest conversation with you.
3. Be honest. When our kids are young they are naturally trusting of their parents but as they grow older their bull shit meter develops and it becomes harder to lie to our kids. So it’s important when you are talking with your children to be honest. Even when you honestly don’t know the answer to their question. By being honest with your kids you’ll create a trusting environment that will allow your kids to be open. The more you show your true self the more likely your child will do the same.
What’s the difference between a girl and a boy?
Not much and this is exciting for a father with three girls. Now this doesn’t mean that both sexes get treated equally because they don’t but the opportunities that girls can aspire for today is far greater then it was before. We have a woman running for President. We have women in the military. We have women running companies. On the other hand, there are men like myself who are stay at home dads. These examples teach our children that there is nothing they can’t be if they have the will and drive to get it.
So if you are given the opportunity or if you take the time to create it I encourage you to talk with your children about gender differences. Ask them what is the difference between a boy and a girl. You may be surprised about what they say and if there is any misconceptions it’s important for us as parents to correct their perspective so that they understand boys can have long hair to.
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Photo: Flickr/Don LaVange