We now accept when girls dress up as an astronauts or pirates. But a boy princess? Arlene Harris talks to three Irish mums who think it’s time to put gender stereotypes behind us.
Girls like sugar and spice and all things nice and boys are really into slugs, snails and, of course, puppy-dog tails... There was a time when everyone followed this mantra, believing that little girls dressed in frilly pink could do no wrong as they gently played with dolls whilst dreaming about marrying a prince. Or, if at all career-minded, their minds were filled with caring, nurturing roles.
Boys, on the other hand, were supposed to be covered in mud dissecting worms or slaying dragons in preparation for their complex manly futures.
Thankfully we now know that this is all hogwash, and no self-respecting parent would have a problem with their daughter climbing trees or displaying a desire to become an astronaut. Society, however, doesn’t seem to have quite reached the same sense of equality when it comes to boys and, last month, the headmistress of a UK school caused a bit of consternation when she decreed it just as acceptable for boys to wear princess dresses as it is for girls to dress up as firemen.
Jo Heywood of Heathwood boarding school for girls says parents should bring up their children in a gender-neutral fashion so youngsters can try out both male and female roles.
Dr David Carey says while most people have no problem with girls dressing as boys, the opposite still causes a stir — but there is little harm caused by making children wear gender-specific clothing.
“In a male-dominated culture, as nearly all cultures are, the role of men has always been that of the dominant figure in authority,” he says. “Since in these cultures women have traditionally had little political power, prestige or authority, society pays little notice to how girls dress.
“Simply stated, this culturally-disenfranchising view of women has led to it never mattering how little girls dress because they will not rise to a position of influence in society.
“Although these stereotypes of clothing, colour and style may be obnoxious to some, there is no lasting damage resulting from them. Children learn their cultural gender roles from observing the adults around them more than what sort of clothes are chosen for them in childhood.” So the child psychologist agrees with Ms Heywood and says children should be given freedom of expression.
“I think the head teacher’s view is enlightened and visionary,” he says. “No school should dictate in any way the roles children will assume later in society and I am all for freedom of choice exhibited by the child. “The only difficulty which may arise from this is when a child desired to wear gender-opposite clothes in public. This is when parental guidance is needed to help them learn that to a certain degree and to avoid insult, some adherence to societal norms of dress is important — but once a child is a teenager they should be free to dress as they choose.”
Debbie Morone has five-year-old twins — Oscar and Isabella. The Kildare woman, who works as a freelance makeup artist says her children enjoy a gender-neutral upbringing.
“Being a mother of twins, a boy and a girl, I made a conscious decision to treat them equally,” she says.
“This meant that there would be no preferences or exceptions because of gender and the toys they played with were always gender-neutral.
“Oscar was just as happy playing with the toy kitchen as he was with trains, while Isabella loved messing with a football as much as playing with dolls. When I painted my nails and Isabella wanted hers painted, I painted them, if Oscar wanted his done too then he got them.
“I am a make-up artist, so the kids were always surrounded by the stuff and I was more than happy to have them play with it. Why not? What would I teach my children by saying ‘no, this is for girls and that is for boys?’ Our children are not born with gender-specific ideas, so why force them upon them?”
Morone, who runs Decadent Beauty (www.facebook.com/decadentb) fully supports the UK principal in encouraging parents to let their children be imaginative.
“That school principal is fantastic, so forward thinking,” she says. “She is showing children that it’s ok to be who you want to be — which is a much larger message than just playing dress up.
“It’s telling the girls that if they want to be CEO of a multinational company they should strive for that and likewise it’s allowing boys to explore the possibility of being whatever they choose, without prejudice.
“We need to be very careful of the message we send out to our youngsters.
“Things are slowly changing in schools and this needs to be encouraged with parents playing a major role. So while the marketing of toys has a hell of a lot to answer for, with construction toys in one aisle and dolls are in another, parents should take their child down every aisle because if the retailers won’t change the store layout, we need to change our approach. It’s time to get rid of gender stereotypes for good.”
Mother of three, Ali Coghlan agrees. The Wicklow woman has just published Get Crafty, a gender-neutral art and craft book for children and says society tries to enforce gender-specific preferences from a very early age and parents should make a point of changing this trend.
“I don’t believe that boys and girls should dress and play according to their gender,” she says. “From the moment a baby is born, it’s instantly surrounded with pink or blue teddies, cards, blankets and the rest — whether it’s from the parents or family and friends. This then continues with toys, bedroom decor, clothes and activities. So I think a child definitely learns gender specific behaviour from parents.
“So I agree with the headmistress in England as I don’t think princesses or pirates should be gender specific. I would have no problem if my little girl (Nicole 2 ½) wanted to dress up as a pirate or if my son (Harry, 6) wanted to dress up as a princess. They often do. You will find it’s often not the other children who judge or pass comment but other parents and older children who have become accustomed to how they believe things should be.”
Ali, who is married to Stuart and also has a new baby daughter (Juliet, 3 months), says forcing gender specific ideals on children says a lot about how society is viewed.
“The fact that we have gender-specific toys and clothes has a lot to do with the way society looked at the family unit back when traditionally mother would stay at home,” she says. “I suppose the female role was looked at as a weaker or lesser role so therefore it wasn’t accepted for a boy to play dress up as a female but it was for a girl to dress up as a male. Nowadays the roles have changed so much; we have stay-at-home dads and working mums so thankfully this is changing rapidly.”
Little Green Dot is a Cork-based company which offers gender neutral clothes and toys. “It drives me crazy to see all the pink, sparkly clothes for girls while the boys’ are all about adventure and every other kind of colour,” says owner, Lisa Tonge. “I want to offer handmade products in child-friendly prints and colours to suit any child - boy or a girl as it’s important for children to be allowed to develop their own tastes and clothing is an essential part of this.”
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