In our world, blue is for boys and pink for girls. Boys are supposed to play rough sports, be competitive, and win. Girls are expected to learn from early ages to care for others, perform household chores, and be pretty. The construction and reinforcement of traditional gender roles and norms are so ingrained that most of humanity live life without questioning them. They seem natural and thanks to media and advertising, normalized to the point that go unchecked.
However, there are plenty of traditional gender roles and norms that are extremely harmful, especially for children, as they limit their experience in life and impede them to learn valuable skills. In the case of girls, there is a constant effort to expand the boundaries of what they can do in society and a purposeful push for challenging what it means to do things “like a girl”. Unfortunately, this expression is still widely used among men as an insult, seeking to affect one’s confidence, as if doing things like a girl or a woman had less value. This kind of situations exemplify the way in which prevailing gender norms and roles tell boys and girls about what they can and cannot do.
In the case of boys, they learn from an early age that masculinity is something you use or you lose. Under this construction of identity, being a man requires a constant affirmation, including the fulfillment of unwritten, complex rules about colors, activities, toys and tastes. But this is not natural, boys learn these rules from their parents, family members, school teachers and peers. They learn what behaviors and actions reinforce the prevailing idea of manhood in their spaces. A small boy does not care if the socks are pink or blue or if cooking is an activity traditionally assigned to women. If he is cold, he will wear the socks and if he likes the kitchen set, he will play to make dinner. If you tell your boy that he cannot cry because he is a man, even when he is suffering, he will learn that lesson quickly.
Toys, clothes, and colors are not inherently divided by sex, they are socially attributed as feminine and masculine. But when we assume that this division is natural, we deprive girls and boys to learn needed and valuable skills in life, not only to enhance their experience but to promote equality. In a world where women make less money than men for equal jobs, where women are victims of gender-based violence, and where being a man means being straight, it is necessary to challenge unequal relations of power from an early age, an age where boys and girls are still learning about gender roles and norms. To do so, it is on us, adults, caregivers, and caretakers to reflect critically on these notions and take the first step.
What about if that first step means buying a doll for a boy this holiday season?
Historically, caregiving and nurturing have been attributed as feminine traits. As such, we expect women to learn how to be good moms, cooks, and perform all household chores. In 2016, women did 40% more unpaid work at home than men in the UK. In 2015, 85% of American women spend time doing housework, compared to 67% of men. These stats have not changed substantially in the US since 2003. The UN report “the World’s Women 2015” estimates that in developing countries women spend three times more time doing unpaid household work daily than men. Only 30% of men perform cleaning activities. In sum, the outlook is not very promising.
These numbers tell us how society and culture tend to associate household chores and caregiving activities with women, expecting them to assume these responsibilities. However, reality tell us that men and women should and must learn how to care for others. The skills needed to do this are taught at home and learned by try and error, by playing and engaging with others.
For instance, by playing with dolls children learn how to care for others and this allow them to improve their cognitive, fine-motor, and emotional skills. In addition, some of these behaviors and attitudes are replicated by boys in interactions with peers, which help them to develop empathy and emotional intelligence from an early age. Do you want your children to learn these skills? Does it matter if your child is a boy or a girl? Would you deprive your boy from that learning experience because of your own biases? Check out these options of dolls for children, there are even dolls specifically developed for boys.
To achieve equality, we need to change the way in which we are raising boys. This cannot wait. It is necessary to challenge and change harmful gender roles that impede them to learn how to care for themselves and for others. We need to tell boys that playing with a doll or wearing pink does not make them less of a man. We want boys to learn how to express and articulate their feelings. We need to teach boys that performing activities such as cooking, cleaning, or changing diapers have extraordinary value and usefulness. We need to stop imposing our unchecked biases around sexuality in our boys as if dancing or crying were actions that men cannot perform. We need to do this now, because if we don’t, we are collectively raising the next generation of men who think that gender inequality is okay, and it is not.
This holiday season offers us a remarkable opportunity to promote gender equality. Don’t waste it. Use this chance to spark a conversation about harmful gender roles and make inequality visible. We cannot change what we cannot see.