By now you have probably heard about the Toronto family that was featured in the Toronto Star earlier this month. Their decision not to reveal the gender of their 4-month old child, Storm, has drawn attention from all over the world as the story went viral, drawing both criticism and kudos from parents and getting attention from blogs, podcasts, and international media outlets. As the story quickly became thestar.ca’s most read and most commented on story ever, it was clear that this issue of gender struck a chord with readers.
The decision the family has made is controversial, and the outpouring of reactions show that people feel very strongly about it. Gender stereotypes run deep and affect many aspects of our lives, through language, education, and culture. So instead of taking the opportunity to pass judgement on the choices of this one family, perhaps this is an opportunity to reflect on the role of, well, gender roles.
Delicate girls and big boys
Parents, very early, set different expectations for their children based on their gender. Studies examining how parents describe their newborns show that parents report girls as more delicate, finer-featured, and more inattentive than boys. Other studies show that children as young as 19 months begin to use gender labels. Many parents of preschoolers encounter these labels and their implications directly, through comments about what is and is not okay for boys and girls. In my own experiences as a parent I’ve heard comments about hair length, clothing colour, and toy preferences that I don’t necessarily agree with (i.e. boys can’t have long hair, girls can’t like Spiderman, etc). Some might say that these gender-based labels of strength and delicacy are the natural consequences of the biological difference between boys and girls, while others might see it as gender stereotypes at their most extreme. And while it’s an interesting question, we might also ask the question ‘do these gender roles support the healthy development of our children?’
In looking for ways to better serve the educational needs of our boys and girls, the Toronto District School Board is exploring the potential of opening single-gender schools as early as next year. In order to offer parents more choice, the public school board is looking at opening both boys-only schools and girls-only schools, with curriculum and teaching techniques based on gender differences in learning. Given that there is an interest in accommodating differences in educational philosophy based on gender, it may also be worth examining some of the ways that boys and girls are treated differently by our culture more generally.
Boys battle, girls love
It’s not just parents and teachers who treat boys and girls differently. Advertisements for toys targeting boys and girls have very different messages depending on the child’s gender. This tag-cloud posted last month on boing boing is a good graphic representation of the differences between messages that are aimed at boys and those that are aimed at girls. This begs the question, are these gender differences biological or socially constructed? And more importantly, are they helpful or harmful? Are there ways that children can be better served by looking more closely at the role of gender in educational and child development?
The Calm after the Storm
For many, the answer to questions like these is, ‘Yes, we can do better!’ Kathy Witterick, the mother at the centre of this gender controversy, mentioned the work of Alfie Kohn as an influence on her views about education and parenting. Kohn is a leading figure in the progressive education movement and recipient of the George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language in 2000. His views, and those of other reformers, suggest there is a role for challenging the traditional way of approaching education and parenting, though they are still controversial in some circles. There may not be a consensus on how to proceed at present, but a careful and critical analysis of how gender stereotypes affect children could help society as a whole better understand the needs of our young children.
The frenzy of comments and opinions about gender that came out of this one family’s choice indicate that there is a strong desire for dialogue about how the entrenched gender roles influence our children. Clearly not everyone agrees with this family’s approach, and few claim to even understand it, but can questioning the traditional roles and asking serious questions about the status quo do any harm?
How have gender roles affected your parenting? Are you in favour of gender-specific education? Share your thoughts on this issue or tell us your own experience by adding your comment below.
 Karracker, K., Vogel, D., Lake, M. 1995. Parents’ gender-stereotyped perceptions of Newborns: The Eye of the Beholder revisited. Sex Roles Volume 33, Numbers 9-10, 687-701.
 Zosuls, K., Ruble, D., Tamis-Lemonda, C., Shrout, P., Bornstein, M., Greulich, F. 2009. The acquisition of gender labels in infancy: implications for gender-typed play. Developmental Psychology45(3): 688-701.