Parenting based on gender stereotypes is limiting. Teaching kids gender equality is important to help your children pursue their true interests.
By Nayantara Mallya
When I had a son, after having my daughter, I expected them to automatically absorb my gender-neutral attitude. But it’s much more challenging than I’d imagined, because like it or not, even the most liberated among us are conform to a lot of gender stereotypes.
As Indian moms, teaching our kids to get over the invisible, artificial gender barriers is possible – but it requires awareness and work at good parenting. It’s important to realize where our kids are picking up wrong ideas.
While it’s often a matter of convenience as to which parent does what, it sends the wrong message to the kids. I drive my kids everywhere, but thankfully hand over the wheel to my husband during family outings. One day, when I sat in the driver’s seat and my husband in the passenger seat, my 3 year old son was puzzled. “Amma, why are you driving? Only men can drive.” After that, I try to drive my husband and kids around more often!
All of us do model stereotypes for our kids, albeit unconsciously. In most Indian households, the balance between the roles played by fathers and mothers is still mighty unequal. Primarily, the father brings home the lions’ share of the income and takes care of things outside the home, and the mother, while she might be earning, is still responsible for the lionesses’ share of housework and child care.
In most Indian households, the balance between the roles played by fathers and mothers is still mighty unequal.
“It’s really important for dads to make that extra effort to stop under-functioning as nurturers and caretakersof the home,” explains Nimmy Kumar, 32, Marketing Professional based in Hyderabad. “My husband hardly did anything around the house, and we used to joke about his guest appearances. All the parenting fell to me, and I was cheerfully doing it.”
It was when they realized how it was giving their 5 year old son Vishal a sense of entitlement that they began a long, slow process of change. “I’ve realized that we women collude with our spouses in deciding roles. Whemy husband first started pitching in more with parenting and housework, I was constantly criticizing and controlling him.” Luckily Nimmy’s husband told her to back off, made his mistakes and gradually figured out his own ways of doing things. The improved balance has had a good effect on Vishal’s attitude.
The confusing messages do much harm with daughters too. “On the one hand we’re shouting from the rooftops about women’s lib.,” says Sharada S., 41, Freelance Writer based in Bangalore, “and then we’re showing them how incapable and dumb women are.” Up to 3 years ago, Sharada didn’t drive, didn’t have a clue about financial planning and didn’t talk much to her 7 year old daughter Varsha about her work. Then she saw Varsha’s Social Studies textbook. Varsha had to write ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’ next to descriptions of different household chores. “She had written ‘Father’ for going to office, driving and reading the newspaper, and ‘Mother’ for pictures of cooking, cleaning and parenting.” Sharada was aghast.
“I pushed myself to become more independent. I grit my teeth and learned how to ride a two-wheeler and took charge of bill-paying and financial planning. It was tough.” She also started talking about her work with her daughter, showing her what she did, even though it was from home. “Now she tells her teacher how her smart Mamma has a home office and earns a good income,” beams Sharada proudly.
There’s an intense, continuous stream of gender stereotypes being beamed at our kids from the media, be it sacrificial Bollywood mothers or women as props on most ads. It’s critical that Indian moms combat the messages they’re selling to our children.
The best way is to keep talking. “We don’t lecture Varsha,” says Sharada. “When we spot a subliminal or overt message in a movie or on TV, we casually bring it up later, and we talk about it. She has surprised me by her questions.”
You can use the media itself to ‘de-program’ your kids, by choosing better programs and movies.
“Whenever my son or daughter says that something can be done only by a man or a woman, I get going!” says Prakash M., 41, a Software Engineer in Bangalore who wants broader horizons for his children. “I take them out and show them men and women in fields usually reserved for one gender. When I heard about the only woman bus driver in Bangalore, I read out the article to both my kids.”
You can use the media itself to ‘de-program’ your kids, by choosing better programs and movies. It helps to reinforce the message when a TV show or movie shows people breaking stereotypes in real situations or a fictional setting. Some parents bring up the topic while reading books. “It doesn’t make sense to completely cut out books like The Famous Five, in which Anne cooks and the boys go on night-time adventures,” says Nimmy. “I just make sure that I balance the Enid Blytons with books about children having fun and living lives without limitations imposed by gender.”
It’s important to talk with them about how many people assume that certain professions and abilities are gender-specific. Have regular dialogues with your kids about what skills and talents would be required for that kind of a job or role.
The pressure to fit in to defined limits of gender begins very early. It’s obvious in queries about my children. People usually enquire if my daughter talks a lot, if she’s good and well-behaved and doing well in school. When asking about my son however, people ask how naughty he is, how much he troubles us and how active he must be. They even interacted differently with my kids when they were infants.
Boys, from the beginning are trained to grow up and earn, but many lag severely in social skills. Most people don’t talk to my son, but they will chat endlessly with my daughter. They will roughhouse with him and tickle and tease, but very few people try to have anything remotely approaching a dialogue with him.
“I want to learn karate,” announced my son, “for fighting.” His other options involved various sports and ‘Bollywood dance’. He refused to consider any other hobby classes because none of his friends went for such classes. We haven’t given up yet though. We have found little boys enrolled in classes for classical arts and girls excelling in sports and we talk about them a lot. We do not want to cut out anything from our kids’ lives and limit their potential.
Consider the following attitudes that reflect the gender bias:
1. Observe the gender ratio in an Indian classical dance, art or music class or performance by youngsters. How many boys do you see?
2. Ask the boys and girls around you what hobby classes they go for. There are definite skewed gender ratios in theatre, arts, sports and language classes.
3. When in a social setting, look out for boys who talk politely.
Geeta Mohan, 29, a homemaker in Bangalore worries about her 7 year old son, the only boy in his Bharatnatyam dance class of 30 students. “Gautam’s interest in classical dance is met with raised eyebrows, and predictions that ‘the other boys will tease him out of it’.” There is a dearth of males in India in anything to do with self-expression and passion, because these are not associated with high earning capacity.
Still, Geeta has full support from her mother, a trained dancer herself, and her father who is passionate about Carnatic music. “My parents spend hours immersing Gautam in music and explaining its nuances to him. I think he will continue dancing, because we will stick by his choices.”
Gender-neutral parenting, then, is not only about rejecting the gender specificity of toys and pink and blue clothing. Most Indian moms unconsciously accept gender stereotypes and restrictions shoved down kids’ throats. Still, there are a growing number of parents who are determined to free their kids from these limiting ideas. It’s not easy to challenge the norms, but it’s a learning process, just like every other aspect of parenting.
I'm currently a communications specialist in the corporate world, and mom to a teen
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