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Break gender expectations in kids' activities



JoElle's mom and dad set a good example for all parents. They say if their daughter likes something, then it isn't a "boy sport" it's a "JoElle sport."


When children are young, there are options for activities that mix boys and girls. There is rarely a division of how they participate. Gymnastics classes, swim classes and music classes all offer sessions inclusive of gender. But as children get older there becomes a disparaging amount of stereotypes that come along with participating in their favorite activities. For example, boys may fall away from dance classes, or girls may be less inclined to stick with male dominated sports. The expectations for who fits where shifts as our children grow up.

Pressure from peers
Lyndsey Dussling of Red Hook witnessed this first hand when her son Ailyn, age 5, was excited to take dance lessons. She says, "He did enjoy the classes, but before class he always said he didn't want to go because it's for girls. After each class we talked about his enjoyment so the next time he complained we could remind him of that conversation and reinforce after class that he actually enjoyed it."  After a full season he declined to continue because he felt sure dance was only for girls. "We require him to commit to a season and not quit in the middle. That's a rule across the board."

Danielle Brown of Kingston was also disappointed when her daughter came home from preschool and denounced her favorite superhero. She says, "My daughter used to love Spiderman. We had Spiderman clothes, toys, lamps, everything under the sun. I even sewed her a Spiderman skirt and matching bow for the first day of school. Once a few days of preschool had passed she was no longer interested because of kids at school telling her it's a boy's thing."

Benefits of banishing stereotypes

Participating in dance, movement and even music lessons has been connected with higher test scores by experts. Physical activity is good for everyone and is essential for proper development.  Parenting experts further espouse that participation in a variety of activities helps kids
develop a sense of autonomy, self-confidence, and improve academics and time management skills.

If youths benefit from participating in a variety of activities, why do kids suddenly pigeonhole their favorite things by gender?  

READ MORE: Exploring the gender spectrum

Is our culture to blame?

Gender stereotyping begins at home, according to the online edition of the Encyclopedia of Early Childhood Development. Parents and care givers have the ultimate influence in their kids' lives. Shifting our own expectations for gender roles, and modeling a more equal division of labor in the home, helps kids form their ideals of what is achievable. Even really young children can sense the differences in how gender is perceived when there is no cross over in responsibilities.

Language plays a key role in how kids begin to divide themselves by gender. In school when teachers use phrases like, "good morning boys and girls" it implies that there are two categories of attendees in the room. However, phrases like, "good morning class!" or "good morning children" send a message of inclusion.

Some parents consider our culture to blame for gender segregation where things like numbers and counting are promoted more as boys activities, and fantasy play like costumes and magic are marketed toward girls. Even in a household that promotes gender equality it may require diligence to keep kids focused on their favorite activity, or feel comfortable to try a new one, despite those outside influences.

Break through barriers
Amy Luke of Saugerties emboldens her daughter JoElle, age 8, to stick with karate, a male dominated activity, by encouraging her before she feels like she wants to quit. "We talk about the benefits before we get into crisis mode" Luke explains. JoElle has participated in karate since age five and a half. "We don't classify anything as a boy or girl sport, or hobby. She honestly didn't know any different until her friends started making comments stating, 'that's a boy sport.'

My husband and I told her that it doesn't matter. If she likes it then it is a JoElle sport," she said. "I believe breaking gender roles starts with the parents. If the parents model the appropriate behavior then the child will have an easier time breaking barriers."

One such mom that is helping her daughter break through barriers is Karina P. of Rhinebeck. Karina is encouraging her 9-year-old daughter by giving her room to try new things as they interest her.

"I encourage her to try all kinds of things. She's a whiz at math and loves the STEM stuff in school. I also make sure she helps or at least watches me fix things around the house. She has her own tool kit too." Karina is no stranger to breaking gender barriers herself, "I was the second girl in my high school to take both years of auto shop."

READ MORE: How to choose the right enrichment program

Leave gender out of it

It is safe to say there remains some gender bias towards what activities or hobbies are suitable for boys and for girls. Even though much has changed over the years, and kids today are more often encouraged to make their own choices, parents may need to continue to encourage their children to push passed stereotypes. Experts and parents agree that the simplest way to help your child stick with an activity is focusing on their individual talents and leave gender out of it.

Roxanne Ferber is a freelance writer and blogger at TheWhateverMom.com. She lives in Saugerties with her husband and 6-year-old twins.