I finally came undone while at lunch with some other mothers, when the kids were at playschool. Until then, I’d held my tongue. I’d smile politely every time the sales person at Hamley’s directed my 4 – year old daughter to the princess aisle; made no comment when my sister said “I know what your favourite colour is Anya” and then bought her a pink balloon; even ignored the teacher who told Anya “remember to tell your mother how you jumped so high, like a boy, today”.

Maybe it had been brewing for too long, but when one of the mothers, Bhavna, congratulated another (Priya) on the arrival of her baby with “Oh, what a princess! Glad she has your looks and your husband’s brains. You’re going to have to keep her locked up in 15 – 20 years,” I lost it.

Me: You can’t be serious. How can you say such a thing?

Bhavna: What do you mean?

Me: Can’t you see? It’s insulting to Priya and her husband. Are you saying Priya does not have brains or that her husband is ugly? Plus the baby - she’s barely arrived, and already we’re telling her how physical beauty is important. Also, why keep her locked up in 15 – 20 years? If Priya had had a “good looking” boy, would you say the same thing? Probably not, you would say he would be out breaking hearts. I’m so frustrated with the subtle (and not so subtle) gender stereotypes and biases around us. They’re so pervasive, so ubiquitous, and we’re so used to them that we can’t even see them!

Another mother, Reshma: Puja, honestly, I hate to say this, but I’m so tired of people who are constantly looking for a gender issue where there is none. It was just a harmless compliment, why are you making a big deal out of it?  What’s wrong with calling a daughter a princess?

Me: I understand that these comments don’t come from a negative place or mean any harm. And this may sound like psychological garb to you, but when you call your daughter a princess or your son a slob, you are evaluating them, whether you like it or not. And it gets in the way. It’s better to just describe what you are seeing or hearing that you find pretty or annoying. Instead of saying she’s beautiful, why not say, “Your laughter lights up the room” or “Your smile makes the heart sing”? She will automatically know you are calling her beautiful and she will also know what it means to be beautiful. In fact, in the future, if someone tells her she isn’t beautiful, she will have had a parent who has shown her otherwise, not just told her. It’s not that you can never say out loud s/he looks beautiful/handsome but consume it like dessert - extremely sparingly, and always follow up with the descriptive phrase.

Reshma:  I guess it’s ok for girls but harder for boys. Sometimes my Krish wants the craziest of things. Yesterday, we were buying toys and he was insistent on getting a rainbow coloured pony – all glittery and purple. I told him that the pony was obviously for little girls and that he can’t be interested in baby toys anymore. I got him a car instead. He does love them. Or the other day - he wanted to put on nail polish! What am I supposed to say? Even if I let him, he will get destroyed at the playground! I said nail polish is for girls and put an end to that.

Me: You’re right. He might get teased at the playground. One of the strongest critics of our children are their peers. If that really is your biggest worry, I would say to Krish, “beta, you know other kids might tease you.” And let him decide if he still wants to put on polish! But what you’re doing by saying no is not letting him experience things for himself. Don’t underestimate how much kids grow and learn when we let them fail, get hurt, fall etc. What they need from us is not someone who will protect them from all the pain in the world but someone who is there for them no matter who they are or what they decide to be. The measure of a good parent is what s/he is willing not do for their children.

At the store, you not only didn’t acknowledge Krish’s desire for the pony, what you told him instead was that there is a difference between what girls and boys should and should not do, like or dislike. On a deeper level, you’re telling him not to trust his judgment, and that what he’s thinking / feeling or wanting is not important. These are the seeds for gender stereotypes that develop when they become adults. By the way, stereotypes go both ways. We discriminate against boys also.  If you keep telling your boy he’s rough, eventually, he’ll stop even trying to be gentle.

Divya: But there are so many things that are influencing Veer. From books to grandparents to teachers to cartoons and apps and his friends, all are subtly telling him what’s proper for a boy vs girls. What can I really even do other than watching what I say? And will all this watching-what-I-say even matter in the long run?

Me: You can’t control everything that goes on in your children’s lives, you don’t even want to. No one actively teaches a child about gender stereotypes. It gets picked up subconsciously. Just like my kid did not need to learn about “grammar: noun and verb” to understand that there is a difference between “hit daddy” and “daddy hit.” It’s also not just about watching what you say, but also listening and acknowledging what your kids say.

 

These are some things that have worked for me.

1. Unlearn:

Our parenting knowledge comes largely from how we were raised. We all think about the big obvious positives and negatives from our own childhood and work to improve them. But there are so many smaller things that are so entrenched in our minds that we never even question them. Ask yourself - what does it really mean, in your own opinion, to be a boy or a girl? When you say something about gender, even if it’s harmless or just for fun, what is the message you are really sending to your kids / what is the message you have imbibed yourself?

2. Being A Model:

Children are like monkeys and imitate what adults around them do. They also are dying for your approval. Show that your husband can set the table when you have a party and that you can pay for dinner every once in a while.

3. Look For Ways To Show Your Child A New Picture:

You want Krish to be less rough (like a boy?) with the baby? See a toy that he has taken care of and is playing with and say “That airplane has been around for ages, and it still looks brand new. Seems like you were gentle with its delicate parts.”

4. Put Them In Situations Where They Can See Themselves Differently:

Cousins teasing Sania about how she “runs like a girl” and her agreeing with them? Ask her if she wants to give tennis / cricket / badminton lessons a shot.

5. State Feelings And Expectations:

“Veer, we all clean up after ourselves – irrespective of whether we’re a boy or girl. I expect you to do the same.”

 

I don’t really know if watching what I say or listening to my kids is going to work in the long run and a lot of times I feel terribly defeated. But when the entire world is punishing my daughter and son for who they are (if it does not fit the norm), policing for small things like what they want to wear to bigger issues around what they want to be, I know we must stand behind them so that they can truly become themselves.  

Notes: “Your Guide to a Happier Family” and “How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk” by Adela Faber & Elaine Mazlish

Follow up with How to talk to little girls, gender specific toys or the recent article, Are you holding your daughter back.