Thursday, April 28, 2011

Gender Stereotyping and its effects on young children

Back while I was doing post-grad, a friend and I were kidding around after class, drawing things on the blackboard. My friend thought I was a fabulous artist (just compared to her) and was asking me to draw this and that. One of our classmates, a much older man (in his forties, married with children, who had taken a sabbatical from work to get a post-grad degree) walked in on us, just as I was wondering what to draw next.
"Draw a kolam," he said.
"What's a kolam?" I asked.
"Rangoli," explained my friend.
"Oh I can't draw rangolis."
"Really? How is it that you cannot draw kolam?" asked the man.
"Is it compulsory for people to know how to draw kolam? Can YOU draw kolams?" I asked him.
"No, I'm a man, I don't know. Women should know how to draw kolam."

I got so heated up that I don't exactly remember what I did. But I think I shouted and ranted and walked out, or something like that, coz I remember the poor man's horrified face. He would have been thinking, "Gosh, girls shouldn't behave like this!" Heh heh!

Yes, Gender stereotypes bother me. And I try to counter them from time to time. I know better than to overreact now, but the fact is that it has taken on a new dimension now, with Puttachi at an impressionable age. Because I don't want her to grow up with stereotypical ideas in her head.

The above rangoli example is harmless. But there are others coming at us from all over, without our even realizing it, and that is what gets to me.

"He's a man, he can do it. Women shouldn't do that."

"If a man had done that, I wouldn't have been surprised, but a woman doing all that - it is so difficult to believe that it is even possible for a woman to do that..."

Don't we hear such statements quite a bit?

And it doesn't help that our mythological stories and folktales reinforce the traditional concept of women being the weaker and subordinate sex.

"Agastya was very pleased with the way his wife served him, and granted her a boon."

"The Pandavas felt that Draupadi was too weak to climb the mountain, and wondered what to do."

These statements just portray the culture and traditions of a bygone era - but children who are reading it today don't know that, unless we tell them.

Right now, since Puttachi cannot read full stories, I am the one who explains things to her. I can modify the sentences above and say something like, "Draupadi had a fever/hadn't eaten well and so couldn't climb the mountain." But what when she starts reading herself? There is no way I can control inputs - I can just step in from time to time and try to reinforce the values that I want her to imbibe.

Even my unconscious actions have reinforced stereotypes. I didn't drive for the longest time, and when we sat in my aunt's car in England last year, Puttachi said, "Women can drive? Oh!" I was shocked. Necessity, combined with this incident spurred me to start driving in the next two months. Puttachi's paediatrician is male, and we haven't gone to any other doctor with her. When I told her I'm going to my dentist who is female, Puttachi said, "Oh, are there female doctors too?"

so now, consciously in my stories, I casually bring in female pilots, female doctors, female strongmen (!!) and the like.

I've also tried changing my language at home. The large suitcases in our house are stored in the loft, and they contain smaller suitcases, and so are a little heavy. Though I can bring them down from the loft myself, I avoid doing such work when I am alone at home with Puttachi. What if I am knocked out, or slip and fall, or worse? So I wait until S gets home, but then he, not being one to sit around twiddling his thumbs, gets the suitcases down before I can even pronounce the s of "stool," and naturally Puttachi notices such things.

Earlier, I used to say, "Let's keep our clothes ready, we'll put them in a suitcase after Papa gets back and gets the suitcases down."
Now I say, "I'll get the suitcase down after Papa gets home, and then we'll put the clothes into it."
A small modification, but one, I hope, which will make a difference.

Having said all this, there is a gender stereotype working in our own house that we can simply not ignore. S goes out to work, and I cook and clean and look after my child. Naturally, in Puttachi's play-acting, this gets reflected. "When I grow up, I will become a mother," she says. That bothers me a little. Not that she shouldn't grow up and become a mother - but she shouldn't think that that is the only thing for women to do. I try and get in some of my work during daytime, even when she is around, both for my own sanity, and so that she sees me sitting at a laptop and working seriously. And of course she sees S working around the house and in the kitchen, washing up... I want her to notice little things like that - to see that we have chosen some roles for ourselves in our house because of convenience, but they are not inflexible, and everything is everybody's work, and that we have to help each other.

Besides, I also want her to know that growing up and getting married is not the only aim of life.

Recently, when Puttachi told me something with "When I grow up and get married..." I listened to her, and then said,

So are you sure you want to get married when you grow up?
Why? Everybody gets married.
Well, not everybody, you have a choice not to get married.
But if I don't get married, I will not get a baby, and I want a baby.
(Hyuk, hyuk) Yeah but you can adopt a child. (I explain)

Don't get me wrong. MArriage is a wonderful thing, and I am not discouraging that, nor do I repeat these ideas over and over again, but I want her to know that marriage is not the sole aim of a girl's life. And that is very important for all girls to know, in order to take charge of their lives.

I am perhaps rambling - but I hope you get my point. I would love to know what you do to counter gender stereotypes and give your children the right inputs.

[After I wrote this, I came across this interview of Geena Davis, via Starry's wonderful post. The interview is excellent, deals with gender stereotyping in movies and television. Puttachi doesn't watch TV - yet - so that's one less input to worry about (and man is that a dangerous source!)]

[Here's a great article about combating gender stereotypes.]


starry eyed said...

It comes from everywhere, S. As they grow, your input becomes lesser and lesser compared to the peer and societal milieu.

I think we have to make a conscious effort, because the sterotyping is so all-pervasive. A running commentary does help, as does spending more time with people who break the stereotypes and cross barriers. Also giving more focus when media does showcase a person going beyond gender roles. I'm thinking of making a collage of women riding motorbikes, flying fighter jets and running companies, and also men doing things usually reserved for women.

Just showing my son a live performance by an all-male Bharatnatyam quartet has resulted in his joining a classical dance class. And even my daughter used to think I was a housewife, then I started showing her my articles getting published and the editing work I do, and discussing the payments and roles etc, she's very interested and asks me a million questions. And I always correct my kids everyone they spout a stereotype. It can get exhausting, but I'm not going to let others tell my kids what they can and cannot do!

All the best with Puttachi (and those suitcases :P )

Anonymous said...

In my experience :

More than words children pick up ideas from what you do.
Nothing that you plan with care and do, may work.
Children are perceptive… they observe more than we notice. They will know what we reallly are/believe in.


Girls brought up by parents of academic excellence or artistic intuitions grow up totally differently. Women brought up in complete liberal environment choose to “not choose” and those brought up traditionally choose to conquer newer territories and also bring up a family wonderfully.

No formula…

My belief : to do what one believes in, sincerely… each child is deferent…. Whatever you do you can neither take credit nor be blamed for the way children turn out later.

All you can do is try.

Raj said...

You screamed at a 40-year old man, Shruthi? Girls should not do this.....

Slogan Murugan aka M S Gopal said...

A child growing up in this age not watching TV? Surprising. Why? And what's her reaction to TV in other homes, etc?

Radhika said...

Kids spending more of their time with mom behave like mom. Judicious mix of time with both parents will do wonders. Just as Puttachi gets involved in the work you do, make her get involved in what her Papa does too.

Shruthi said...

Starry, thanks so much - you've been making me think a lot :)

Anon, thanks. I wish you had left your name!

Raj, heh heh :)

Gopal, answer in mail, and probably fodder for a post!

Radhika, that makes a lot of sense. Never thought of it. Children ARE imitative beings.

parijata said...

Wanted to comment on this post much sooner but got caught in cooking and cleaning this weekend :D
This is a post after my own heart. I am very much like you - I hate shopping, do not pay much attention to jewellery and dresses - you know, things like that. At home, I am the one who fixes toys and clocks and cycles and gets suitcases down from the loft (of course, I can do that because my in-laws watch the kids while I am perched dangerously on the tip of the step-stool).
In spite of all this, my kids are exposed to gender stereotyping a lot. They sit with my MIL when she watches her serials (groaan!). My daughter has got three cooking sets as gifts. She likes those sets, but she also enjoys playing with a bat and a ball and reading and so many other things. I have a son and a daughter, and I should say that it makes things easier.

Prashanth said...

A wonderfull article on a strong topic.
but after reading it, i felt it as enforcing it at such a small age is little heavy for them.

P.S: i am not a parent and i dont know their behaviour effect on this issue.

Prashanth said...

A wonderfull article on a strong topic.
but after reading it, i felt it as enforcing it at such a small age is little heavy for them.

P.S: i am not a parent and i dont know their behaviour effect on this issue.

Shruthi said...

Parijata, thanks so much for your inputs. And I'm so glad you are one of those parents who don't believe in stereotypes. I'm sure, considerig your attitude, in spite of all the other influences, they'll grow up into balanced adults.

Prashanth, see, for us, these concepts are heavy because we have been so used to the usual stereotypical beliefs all these years. But for a child, what is heavy, what is light? Whatever we tell them, they absorb like a sponge. If we start now, these concepts just become a part of their attitude, and that is what matters.
By this, I don't mean putting the child in front of us, and saying, "repeat after me, this is gender stereotyping, this is not"
Our everyday conversation must contain these ideas, so that it gets ingrained in children. And I feel it is essential.

hAAthi said...

I know a couple here in Goa who have 2 boys, 5 and a 1.5years old. They dont have a TV at home. And i find their kids brilliantly inquisitive, innovative with the way they entertain themselves and just so much more lively and energetic. And I thought it was a wonderful idea. Id have loved to inculcate a love for reason much earlier in life, had I had no TV as an option Im sure books/other means would have been a default learning :)

Anonymous said...

Hey Shruthi

This is Shruti here. (Yes this time I'll be leaving behind a link to my new born blog ;) )

And my reactions as I read through your blog has just been OMG OMG OMG!! and that is not because I was surprised at your views but it was more like looking at my self speak my heart out!!!(it is freakishly same as what I think!! sounded like a sneak peek into the future :P hehe) I'm 23 right now, very little idea about babies and how to bring them up, but this is one thing I'd surely not let influence my children- gender stereotypes!!

And I believe a mother plays a major role in shaping our approach to life.. trust me anything good in me is because of my mom! since I was a kid she'd always tell me things I needed to do...but with reasoning... my Dad would just say "you are a girl, you need to learn how to keep your room and the house tidy and not mess around like a guy" I could never question what my dad said, so I'd go ask mom(paaapa mummy! I used to ask her a zillion questions!! :P :P)and then she would give me a logical reason as to why it was important to do something, she would also say that it did not matter whether it was a boy or a girl.. and Logic is something I naturally appreciate :)
(I think you should try that with puttachi :))

And yes another important thing I believe that shapes our beliefs and attitude is the stories that we hear, the games that we play and the Toys that we play. They are so fresh in my memory to me even today that li'l things I do are influenced by those li'l tales mom told me during noon time naps :)

>>Games: I remember as a kid when we used to play in the garden down in the park... girls were asked to go play with the other girls.. house-house,tea party, and the worst of all fashion show!(trust me during 4th n 5th std it was a bigtime fav. of all my friends)

And guys would keep running around,jumping over whatever the found on the way, trying to climb up the pipes to reach the 2nd floor without using the stairs and the typical marbels, tazzoz and other games..

I loved marbels and had a hoarding of a huge collection :D and once I remember when we had on of my aunts visit us and she wanted to gift me a barbie doll,which somehow never appealed to me.. so I asked her for a remote controlled jeep (it was a rage back then :))
I remember the look she gave me when I asked her for it(btw she's my fav. aunt :) ) but Mom said she could get me whatever she got for A~ (my cousin brother) and that is how I got introduced to my Electronic magnet set :D

The point is, the whole segregation of the toys and games specifically for girls and boys is wrong. It tends to limit the ability and scope of what each of the group can do... kids should be provided with all kinds of toys I believe... let puttachi have a nice robot she can dismantle and check and question how the bulb inside glows.. let her also have a barbie so she enjoys dressing her up ;)

btw exactly how old is puttachi??

there are many small things...small mannerisms like a girl needs to keep her head down and walk (thats what is supposed to be the sign of a 'good' girl).. trust me in doing thta i barely knew the roads and the surroundings I lived in! I really never got it why this thing was stressed upon so much, not directly but I recall conversations between the elders who said "aa hudugi antu tuumbaa ollevlu, tan daari bitti in yellu kan hakalla!"
or " that girl is co cultured!, she never looks at anything but the road she's taking...
a very stupid thing but it always stayed in my head.. so when i'd walk to the shop down the lane.. thats exactly what i'd do!
but when i had to manage life all by myself back in the hostel I learnt how much a sense of direction i lacked because of this!!.. these are small things that we may never even pay attention to, but they tend to make a mark on a child's psyche..

Anonymous said...

Even in college and now in my internship I come across so many stereotypes which I try real hard to break... Anyway this topic has so much to be written about!

I really like the way you are handling it :) Puttachi will surely grow up to be a nice independent girl :)
God bless her :) :)

btw mummy-pappa call me puttani gini :) Wait till Puttachi reads your blog posts about her when she grows up (she will soooo love them! ):) I have sent mom a few of ur posts :)

and yes thats my blog, have just started.. I guess I'll post more when I get more time.. so far I'm happy to have shifted from my word doc. diary to the blogospehere :)


Shruthi said...

hAAthi, we don't watch much TV at our home, but I know people who have consciously made a decision not to even own a TV for the very reasons you have put forth!

Shruti, thank you so much for your very interesting inputs. Your mother is fabulous - may her tribe increase!

You should write about all this on your blog too - just stopped there, you write pretty well - loved the Lemon analogy. Happy blogging!

Anonymous said...


hehe thanks :) yes.. have more posts in the pipeline.. once I get done with my internship, 2nd year of MBA gives a lot of time to while away ;P
will post when I get back to college :) shall update you about it :)

- the Lemon

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