OPINION: Restrictive gender roles can permanently harm children

Why be your child’s first bully? Shaming a child for breaking gender norms damages self esteem, mental health and even future life opportunities.

Restricting your child from harmless behaviors because it doesn’t fit their gender role is hurtful. If your daughter loves princesses and your son loves race cars, that’s great, but if the opposite is true, that’s great too. 

Additionally, making children believe in a narrow idea of gender roles will lead them to pushing those ideas on their peers. I was lucky enough to never be told by my parents that I couldn’t do something because I was a girl, but that didn’t stop my peers with less progressive parents from telling me that my interests — such as video games and computer science — were “for boys.”

Though this kind of restriction hurts in the moment, the long-term issues are even worse. The way girls are often socialized tends to prioritize being pretty and likeable above other qualities. Rooting self-worth in appearance often leads to an unhealthy relationship with sexuality by adolescence, which can lead to STDs, early pregnancy and even intimate partner violence and sexual abuse.

Restrictive socialization starting from a young age is also likely to impact self-esteem for women, with many women underestimating themselves compared to similarly skilled male peers. This dynamic established early on often prevents girls from wanting to pursue STEM fields when they go to college, not to mention the further sexism any woman who pursues STEM ends up facing.

Even though misogyny is a systemic problem, boys aren’t safe from the danger of forced gender stereotypes. The way boys are socialized often involves repression of emotion, reflecting the cultural idea that crying — or otherwise needing help — is a sign of weakness. This, along with the depiction of masculinity as being tied to violence, leads to a higher rate of death by suicide for men, because even though on average women attempt suicide more often, men often choose more violent methods.

Suicide isn’t the only risk when it comes to gender roles impacting boys and men long term. Men’s socialization often encourages risk-taking behavior, such as substance abuse, unsafe driving and gun usage.

One of the groups most impacted by harsh gender roles is LGBTQ youth. Current estimates of how many children from 13-17 identify as LGBTQ total are about 9.54%, and even before children are aware of their identity, they can be hurt by homophobia and transphobia. Most of the more harmful gender roles are rooted in heteronormativity and cissexism, which are assumptions that everyone is heterosexual and cisgender respectively.

The idea that gender is binary, defined by sex and controls behavior is antiquated and can cause severe turmoil in children who struggle with dysphoria, or even just gender-nonconforming children. Forcing a cisgender boy to wear a dress when he begs to wear boy’s clothes would be seen as abusive behavior, and the same should be true for female children, whether they are actually transgender boys or simply tomboyish girls.

Traditional gender roles also prioritize heterosexuality, emphasizing the idea that heterosexual relationships and marriage are the only option for the future. This is alienating for young gay and lesbian children, and can prevent bisexuals from coming out until significantly later in their lives, by assuming that since they are capable of heterosexual attraction that they can ignore any tendency toward the same gender.

At the end of the day, gender roles aren’t inherently terrible. Many children conform to gender norms completely, and that is fine as long as it is their choice. But before saying “that’s just for boys” or “that’s too girly” to your daughter or son, consider why that was your first thought.

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