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Mixed-gender friendships can help develop important life skills in kids. Tips for Indian parents to teach children about friendship across the gender divide.
By Tanu Shree Singh
Ask any kid, and chances are they’d be horrified at the prospect of being friends with the opposite gender. Both boys and girls have pretty strong opinions about each other, which range from being negative to outright hostile.
Toddlers are often found playing with each other irrespective of gender. By the age of four, children understand their gender and its stability. By seven years, they also know that changing appearances, clothes, or hair length doesn’t make them a boy or a girl. Gender identity, which now begins to strengthen, is their first step to formation of a social identity outside the family. This is further strengthened by associating with members of the same sex to the complete exclusion of the other.
This is also the time when culturally determined gender roles start to creep in. Statements like, ‘girls are sensitive,’ ‘boys do not cry’ start getting absorbed. The two genders start feeling fierce prejudices towards each other, and friendships are formed within gender. So basically, a boy learns that he is a boy and what makes him that, mixes exclusively with other boys, and further strengthens his gender identity by degrading the opposite sex. Sad, but true.
This goes on till adolescence when, thanks to a cocktail of hormones coupled with other factors, the genders find themselves getting attracted to each other. Having grown to believe in stereotypical images of a girl being submissive and a boy being aggressive (Powlishta, 1995) an imbalance surfaces, which often sets the tone for future relationships.
In today’s world where gender boundaries are blurring as far as the professional world is concerned, and also seen is a sharp rise in gender-related bias, there is an urgent need to teach children about friendship and its relative independence from gender.
Mixed-gender peer interactions have the following effects:
– The only way the mindset towards the members of the opposite sex changes is through interaction. Mixed-gender friendships teach both the boys and the girls to respect each other and accept them as individuals rather than just a ‘boy or a ‘girl.’
– Children find themselves in a fix if they are required to interact with children of the opposite sex. I remember a dance class back in school – our teacher pulled her hair out trying to get us to lock arms without giggling or jeering. Being friends, regardless of gender, increases social competence.
– When friendship transcends the boundaries of gender, it brings with it a feeling of self-worth.
– Playing, spending time with, and generally being friends with the opposite gender also teaches boundaries and lays a foundation for handling future relationships including marriage.
– And ultimately a better adjusted work life. When you grow up being friends, chances are that you would respect someone for the work they do regardless of their gender. When my son comes home and appreciates his friend for her exceptional mathematical prowess, I swell with pride since in him I see an adult who wouldn’t degrade his female co-workers for being just that – women.
Although it is an uphill task, considering that friendships happen outside the home and are largely affected by the external world, we as parents can help our children make the right choices and fight the tide.
Since cross-gender friendships are largely affected by prejudice against the opposite gender, try to lessen the effects of gender stereotypes. A boy playing with a doll or a girl exploring Lego trucks is perfectly fine. A homogeneous play opportunity opens up communication and instils respect for the other gender.
Sentences like ‘boys are wild and girls are sweet,’ should be forbidden. If a girl is angry, let her express her rage and if a boy is hurt, it is okay if he sheds a tear. Acknowledge a wide range of emotions as being characteristic to anyone irrespective of gender.
A lot of times, schools as well as parents hint at the suitability of certain activities for a specific gender. Girls are made to join cooking classes and you rarely see boys playing sports like throwball. Encourage children to experiment and ask the school to form mixed-gender teams.
Indian parents are phobic to the prospect of our children mingling with the opposite sex. We might say that we are okay but indirect subtle messages convey otherwise. If the child is discussing a classmate, be interested regardless of the gender of the kid being talked about. Do not appear overly interested when the child is discussing someone of the opposite sex.
We brush aside the birds and bees, but lack of knowledge increases the distance between the two genders. If they know the differences, they are also likely to understand their insignificance in determining a person.
Often I see the parents handling boys and girls differently. When you meet your son’s female classmate, be as casual as you’d be with the boys and vice versa. You don’t have to soften your tone or be gentler than you normally are – girls aren’t made of porcelain and neither are boys made of coarse stone. The less differences they perceive, the better it is.
The other day my nine-year-old came home seething with anger. His classmates had teased him for talking to his female friend and called them ‘girlfriend-boyfriend.’ So we talked about how teasing is a milder form of bullying. Anything out of the ordinary becomes a target. We can’t sit the world down and change it, but we can build a shield around ourselves and not be affected.
– Teach your child to believe in his own self rather than forcing himself into the traditional mould of gender roles.
– Teach him to evaluate the importance of his friends – males as well as females.
– Ask him to question what is more important – his friend, or the silly teasing.
– Discuss with (and not tell) the child how it is fine to be different, and unacceptable to end friendships out of fear of jibes from other kids
– Never look upset when the child comes home and tells you about any teasing. If you are upset, he will not tell you the next time.
– Be compassionate, ask questions, give honest answers, and never get over-protective and warn about the possibility of being teased about mixed-gender friendships. When your child questions you about it, tell him that he might get teased but that you are confident that he can handle it. Warning, on the other hand, might amount to scaring.
– Indulge in role-play. Ask him to tease you so that you can model appropriate responses and after that switch roles.
These are some things that all of us can start with. The long-term effects of sex segregation are still a matter of research; however, it is very clear that mixed-gender peer interactions benefit a child’s holistic growth.
– The Developmental Social Psychology of Gender edited by Thomas Eckes, Hanns M. Trautner
– Narahara, M. (1998). Gender stereotypes in children’s picture books. ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED419248
– Sedney, M. A. (1987). Development of androgyny: Parental influences. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 11, 311-326.
– Spence, J. T. & Helmreich, R. L. (1980). Masculine instrumentality and feminine expressiveness: Their relationship with sex role attitudes and behaviors.Psychology of Women Quarterly, 5, 147-163.
*Photo credit: tanakawho (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License.)
Dr. Tanu Shree Singh is a parent to two preteen boys, a lecturer in Psychology,
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