Gender Free Parenting
When my wife was pregnant with our first child, I remember discussing a belief that we both had; namely, we wanted to raise our children the same, regardless of gender. We noticed that the gender roles that our society proscribes restrict the freedom that people have to be authentic. Sons are taught to “be tough,” and “be a man.” Meanwhile, daughters are taught to focus their energies on being nice, making others happy, learning how to listen and communicate with others.
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These narrow behavioral scripts can leave children with incomplete skills for success. We wanted our children to be both brave and socially competent. The purpose of this article is to discuss research which examines the effect of raising children inside strict gender roles, and then encourages you to create courageous daughters and sensitive sons.
In an article by Carmen McLean and Emily Anderson partially called Brave Men and Timid Women, the authors discuss how many parents tend to handle fear and anxiety differently in sons vs. daughters.
More specifically, a parent of a son may tell the son to face his fears, stop being a crybaby, be a man, try it again. In general, boys are more likely to be encouraged to buck up and confront situations in a masculine way. On the contrary, girls are more likely to be listened to, parents will honor the girl’s feelings, perhaps step in and fix the situation for her, protect her, keep her safe, let her off the hook, use more control without granting autonomy.
As a consequence, this longitudinal study finds a relationship between those approaches to fear-inducing scenarios with daughters and higher rates of anxiety when they are older. In addition, women’s gender-specific upbringing can be related to more feelings of helplessness when faced with a situation where failure is possible. Meanwhile, boys are brought up to view challenges and difficult situations as problems that ought to be confronted and solved.
As the authors state, “Expression of anxiety is inconsistent with the male gender role, and fear is less tolerated in boys…Boys may learn that the masculine role involves bravery and purposeful coping behavior when faced with anxiety-provoking situations.” The authors go on to say that when boys are faced with a situation that makes them afraid, they are more likely to be told to gain control of their emotions and solve their own problems. On the contrary, girls are reinforced for focusing on “the experience of the emotion itself.” Parents will talk to their daughters about their feelings, empathize with their fear, and are more likely to encourage them to avoid similar situations in the future.
While teaching boys skills for confronting anxiety may be positive, there is a drawback. There is plenty of psychological evidence to suggest that boys who are discouraged from expressing emotions like fear or anxiety may be less capable of coping with those emotions in others, and less able to communicate their desires with their partners and close friends.
How your child “turns out” has a lot to do with what skills they have practiced. If your son hasn’t had a lot of experience talking through, and being comfortable with, emotional difficulty when he is young, he will enter adulthood needing to develop those skills on his own. Why not teach him now? Help your son be a courageous and sensitive son. If your daughter hasn’t had a lot of experience confronting risky situations, because you bail her out when she is afraid, she will enter adulthood needing to develop those skills on her own. Why not teach her now? Help your daughter be a sensitive and courageous daughter.
In short, parenting which complies too strongly with gender norms (i.e. man = strong and rational; woman = sensitive and emotional) can lead to “incomplete children” who are missing key skills that will help them succeed in the adult world. We must teach our daughters to be courageous and face their anxieties, and we must teach our sons to be sensitive and emotionally expressive. Think about the adults in your life who are most likeable and fun to be around. Wouldn’t you agree that they are a combination of ambition, strength, emotional intelligence and empathy?
Now, I know that psychological research is a report of trends, and there are plenty of parents who treat their daughters in the same way as their sons, but the research suggests that parents like Michael and Ann are more an exception than people realize. I encourage you to think intentionally about how you can send messages that allow your daughter to confront her fears and give her high praise when she does so. I also encourage you to think intentionally about how you can be more accepting of your son when he cries, or is worried or anxious about something. Our world needs bold, courageous people, who have a strong sense of agency that has been created through multiple mastery experiences. Our world also needs people who are in touch with their emotions, and comfortable with the emotions of others. I hope this article has inspired you to give our world more courageous daughters and sensitive sons.
Until next time, happy parenting! I look forward to your comments and questions. Finally, please – if you like this article, and the positive message I am hoping to provide – share it with others, so that more of us can raise great children.