How to Teach Your Kids About Gender Equality

I am the mother of a little boy with long hair. He loves his hair. If you ask him about it, he will respond (without a single hint of hesitation), “I like my hair long because I like to be different.” Truth be told, he identifies with his rock and roll daddy and I suspect that has something to do with it. He sees his dad as different from other dads, and he chooses to see the magic in that.

Other kids, on the other hand, are a different story. He recently confided in me that two boys teased him last week. They told him that he had “girl hair” and said it more than once. Because, you know, according to society, long hair equals girl. And boys should never have “girl hair.” Sigh.

I happen to live a life surrounded by musicians and other highly creative people, so perhaps my “embrace differences” parenting philosophy is partially a function of that, but I do believe that a large part of teaching kids the importance of gender equality begins with celebrating differences. Men and women are different, but they deserve equality. All people look different, but they should have the same rights and they should be equally respected. What a wonderful world it would be…

For my son’s sake, I googled male musicians and athletes with long hair (or who once had long hair), as well as female musicians and athletes with very short hair, and we chatted about the importance of going with your gut and being true to yourself. My guess is that these boys will tease him again before it’s over. I’m not worried, though, because I gave him a script, we practiced it twice, and he’s ready for the next time. First, he’ll stand up for his choices and walk away with his head held high. Next, my little feminist will give them a few lessons in gender equality. Because to tease on the basis of “girl hair” is to say that there’s something wrong with “girl hair” and in our house all hair (and even no hair) is just fine.

Lessons in gender equality should begin early and be repeated often. While many parents of girls worry about the best way to raise them to become assertive, confident leaders in the future, the truth is that boys need to hear those very same lessons. All kids should learn and understand the concept of mutual respect. 

By age 2, children begin to notice the physical differences between boys and girls. By age 3, children begin to associate certain roles and behaviors with each gender. A child might, for example, declare that boys don’t play princess or girls can’t be firefighters. They look for clues in their surroundings, and they piece together those clues to figure out how the world works.

While 3-years-old might seem early for thinking about gender equality, it’s actually the best time to begin introducing the subject. Pointing out females in traditional male roles or vice versa is a great start for little kids, but it’s also important to counter mistaken beliefs and watch our words around our kids. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Be a big boy; don’t cry,” after a child falls on the playground. Is there a rule about boys and crying? What is the age cutoff between big and little and who is in charge of these important societal norms?

If we want to teach gender equality, we need to step back and think about the messages we send our children every single day, as well as these things:

1.  Talk to your kids about what they see in the media. Let me be the first to admit that my kids still watch the “safe” shows, like “Wild Kratts” and “Curious George.” I don’t need to worry about inappropriate content when they watch those types of programs. But, we talk about other shows as well. The truth is that kids are surrounded by media input these days. Whether it’s magazine ads or covers (really, Rolling Stone?), in-app ads, commercials, or things heard from other kids at school, kids are exposed to more than you think. You can check Common Sense Media before you watch a movie and keep video games out of your home, but you can’t control everything. Honest communication is the single best parenting tool out there. Talk to your kids about media. Tell them why you don’t allow them to watch certain shows, listen to certain music, or play certain games. Ask them how they feel about images they might stumble upon in magazines or even on billboards and talk about what those images mean. 

2. Teach them how to create healthy boundaries. Teach body autonomy. All kids need to learn that they are in charge of their own bodies. If tickling isn’t fun, they don’t need to be tickled. If rough and tumble play isn’t for your kids, they shouldn’t be forced to engage. From the time kids are toddlers, we coerce them to kiss and hug certain people in our lives (often family members). Many kids begin to resist this practice at some point. It’s important to respect that. While kids should make eye contact, greet friends and family in a friendly manner, and even shake hands or high five, they shouldn’t be forced to hug or kiss someone if they don’t want to. Healthy physical boundaries should begin early. Some kids are more physically affectionate than others. That’s normal. Tune into your child’s unique needs and listen to her concerns. Give your kids the opportunity to draw lines when it comes to boundaries so that they will learn to respect that boundaries of others in return.

3. Stop using gender as an excuse for behavior. “Boys will be boys” isn’t a thing. Neither is “it’s a girl thing.” Kids are kids and all kids are different. When you use gender to excuse certain behaviors or to explain certain preferences, you put your kid in a box. You also send a dangerous message. People cry out in anger when “frat boy behavior” hits the news because of something terrible on some college campus, but isn’t that the next likely step when boys are raised in a “boys will be boys” society? It’s time to stop attributing behavior to gender and help kids understand how their words and actions impact others, instead.

4. Expose your kids to a variety of role models. My son recently shifted into obsessive sports fan mode (at age 6) and he likes to learn about all kinds of athletes. So, naturally, I like to begin with lessons on successful female athletes before I google every player on the Clippers. There are amazing men and women doing amazing things in this world. There are also incredible stories of strength, courage, and determination in history. Expose your kids to everyday heroes, historical figures, and their favorite athletes. Talk about how the world has changed and who helped that change occur. Get to the library as much as possible and pore through the endless nonfiction books for kids. We are knee deep in learning about Jane Goodall this week (for quite some time it was Helen Keller). Yes, your kids have interests and you should support them as they pursue those interests. But don’t stop there. Continue learning and exploring together so that your kids can see how both men and women shape this world in all different fields of study.

5. Teach them how to empathize with others. Kids with high emotional intelligence form lasting relationships based on mutual respect. Sure, kids with similar interests naturally gravitate toward one another on the playground. That’s a healthy part of friendship building. But it’s also important to build upon the natural empathy that most kids demonstrate. Instead of yelling the word “bully” every time kids have a spat or teasing occurs, dissect the incident with your child and think about it from all perspectives. My son was teased when his team was five runs ahead in kickball. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Teasing is hurtful and kids need to learn how their actions hurt others, but kids also need to learn to empathize with their peers. 

6. Discuss healthy sexuality with your kids. When it comes to this topic, we all wish babies came from storks. But they don’t, and we all have to answer the hard questions at some point. Start conversations so that your kids don’t have to. Use the correct language. Repeat after me: Penis and vaginas are body parts, not bad words. Be honest when your kids come to you with questions. Do you need to provide a detailed play-by-play on where babies come from to a 5-year-old? No. But you do need to provide honest and matter of fact answers. When we dodge our kids’ questions because we are uncomfortable, we send the message that topics about sexuality and bodies are taboo. That can spark the beginning of a lifetime of confusion and shame. Talk to your kids. If you don’t, someone else will and you might not be happy with what that person (or Google) teaches your child.

The bottom line is that we can’t control what our children see out in the great big world, but we can help them understand it. We can talk about gender equality, differences, and kindness. We can empower them to follow their dreams, and we can also empower them to lift others up as they reach for their own dreams. Gender equality is a work in progress, but the more we chip away at inequality, the closer we get to finding equality. And that begins with talking to our kids.

More Parenting Advice from Katie Hurley:

 Photo: Getty