"Can Adam Wear a Dress?" Kids and Gender Roles

When my daughter was six she drew a picture of our family. Her then three year old brother, Adam watched as she detailed a dress on the stick figure that was to be her. When she finished he said, "draw a dress on me!" Stunned, she turned to me and asked, "what do I do?" 

Just like that, I'd been given a teachable moment. With both of their little eyes staring at me it was clear that my response would be formative in my kids' understanding of gender. 

I was reminded of two things: how much influence we have on our kids and how narrow gender roles remain in our culture. Charlotte froze-up because she knew there was some kind of rule against drawing a boy in a dress. Where did she learn that rule? During the million small moments that led to this one. At Target while watching me buy (another) spiderman teeshirt for her brother. In the kitchen where I regularly handed her the pink cup. During dress-up when it's assumed she'd want a tutu. Yes, marketers have cashed in on gender stereotypes and are reinforcing them with pink legos and blue battle toys. But I am humbled to realize that I reinforce gender stereotypes in small ways all the time. 

I believe that women are fully capable of leading or fighting or inventing just as men are fully capable of caring and following and intuiting. And I sure as hell don't want my kids to think that their choices in life are limited by gender. Not to mention the fact that I want to give each of them every opportunity to express a full range of emotions so neither feels stifled by outdated ideas like, "boys don't cry" or "girls don't get mad."

So how big of a deal was the, "draw a dress on me" moment? Pretty big. Would I have other opportunities? For sure, a million of them. As we know, nothing shapes a person more than the messages they receive in childhood from those they love and look up to. And such messages are delivered in small, everyday moments by you and me.

Charlotte did not need a lecture. She would not have listened if I attempted to define gender roles. What she wanted to know was what I believed was right and she would get that from my tone more than anything else. So, like happens often while parenting I had to think fast, figure out what I do believe and deliver that message simply and with confidence: "Boys can wear whatever they want. It's okay to draw a dress on Adam." 

Gender questions are going to come up again and again for all parents. Here's what to do.

1. Become aware of your deeply held beliefs about gender like what boys and girls are capable of, interested in, allowed to do. 

2. Throw out any beliefs about gender that you don't actually, believe. 

3. Let your true beliefs about gender guide our parenting even in small, everyday moments.

SexualityKai KunkelComment