Monday, 16 December 2013

Gender equality in parenting, the media and toys

The boys whipping up a steamed
 pudding
I'm a firm believer in something wonderful that is happening all over the country, and all over the world, right now.  Parents are providing great role models for their kids and breaking down gender stereotypes about 'boy jobs' and 'girl jobs'.  Dad's like Matt are making steamed puddings with their boys  just as well as they tackle the tiling, and mums like me are wielding the power saw with at least as much skill as the iron.  In some families this is about a couple helping each other out and playing to their strengths, and in other families there is a single parent, or two mums, or two dads, all working hard to provide their (or someone else's) children with a fantastic start in life by not limiting their expectations of themselves.

Sometimes I wonder if the media, including books and films, is lagging behind in the gender equality stakes.  When the fantastic newsreader Moira Stewart was dropped by the BBC she said 'it's not that they're ageist, racist or sexist, they just don't want an old, black woman reading the news'.  By limiting the people children see on TV to certain roles we are limiting their expectations of what is 'normal' for them to aspire to.  It's a difficult line to walk though between providing positive role models and making every show so politically correct it creaks.  For example there's a great show on CBeebies called Get Well Soon which explains to children about common ailments and injuries.  The doctor is a man and the nurse is a woman.  Is this reinforcing gender stereotypes and perpetuating an age old tradition of male doctors outnumbering female ones to some extent, or to an even greater extent female nurses outnumbering male ones?  Or is it just reflecting society as the child is most likely to encounter it and therefore representing a realistic view of the world which makes the show believable (singing fuzzy puppets aside)?  So should we be evangelically enthusiastic about promoting gender equality in every casting decision in every show?  I don't know the answer to that but I'm not sure we've got the balance right at the moment.
The kids admiring my floor laying skills 

One element of gender in the media that really does cause concern however is in the constant heavy handed bombardment of children with advertising for toys which are 'boys toys' or 'girls toys'.  In our house we sidestep it to a large extent by really limiting screen time in general, and not watching channels with advertising with the kids.  However, any walk down a supermarket toy aisle gives ample examples of the problem.  If you can only buy bright pink kitchens and pan sets, how does this tell children that everyone in a household should be able to enjoy and share in cooking? I suspect that most children will not be aware that pink only became a 'girl colour' in Victorian times - many a Viking warrior sailed to battle resplendent in pink in earlier times.   So what can we do about gender stereotyping in toys?

I think parental tolerance of children's preferences is the first step.  If your little boy has no interest in traditional girl's toys, don't make a big deal out of it in the name of equality - lots of stereotypical boy's toys are things that boys often show preference for, such as trains, to a greater extent than most of their female playmates.  In the same vein, if your daughter wants to be a pink princess, that's fine too, although many a parent feels that the only princess their daughter should be emulating is Princess Leia.  Conversely, most of the mums with boys that I know have at least one son who prefers pink, nurtures a baby doll and pushes a pram - both of my boys love their cheap pink toy pram.  Our job as parents is to provide varied opportunities for imaginative play and learning, and encourage the interests our children have as well as extending their experiences, but not necessarily to dictate what they play with.

The second step is looking for toys which are not so obviously stereotyped.  If you're looking to get a toy kitchen for example, you could hunt for one which isn't pink.  We got a lovely natural wood and painted white one from a certain Swedish furniture shop which has survived a year of boisterous daily play from two small boys so far (Toby squashed our donated plastic one flat when he was learning to walk).  The boys also have a yellow kettle and iron from a forward thinking supermarket - our nearest supermarket only had pink ones.  By boycotting 'blue for boys and pink for girls', and spending on less gender specific colours, manufacturers and shops are given a clear message about parents wishes.

The third step could be to contact toy makers and shops directly.  'I wanted to buy my daughter some of your building blocks recently but was surprised to see that you felt girls would only be interested in using pink bricks to build a beauty salon...' may be the route you wish to go if this is something that really bugs you.

Whatever they see in the toy shop, in books, films or television though, you are your children's most important role model when they are small, and it is your attitude to what you can or cannot do which ultimately will inform their expectations of themselves.  No pressure there then!