As a mother of a boy and a girl, I was very conscious about never imposing social gender norms and stereotypes on my children. It was primarily because of my own childhood experience – I was expected to act, behave, and express myself in a certain way since I was nine or ten years old. Since that tender age, I used to be told every day that a girl’s value and worth lie in her cooking and domestic work skills. Regardless of the education of a woman, if she is not good at cooking or cleaning, her husband’s family would never love her. That’s not all. A girl should never reply back, should never say ‘no’ to any order, never challenge her traditional and cultural values, or talk or laugh loudly – the list was endless. Because of my apathy in cooking as a pre-teen, every day I used to be reminded how worthless I was. I felt limited, restricted, inferior, less cared for throughout my entire childhood, because of my gender. Gender equality indeed begins at home.
Stereotyping affects both boys and girls
Guess what? I had a brother who was one year older than me. And the rules, expectations, behavioural standards, life-goals, everything was different for him. He never had to do any household chores. He never had to help with cooking or cleaning.
We both were equally smart and ambitious. But by the time he was 14, I could see the expectation started mounting on him about his professional success. However insulting and disgusting it might sound, as an elder brother he was responsible for paying the expenses of my marriage (read dowry)!
It was not only me, but we both were victims of cultural gender norms and gender roles, which affected our adult lives in different ways. It’s a common misconception that gender stereotypes affect only girls.
Avoid bringing gender into the conversation
As a mother, I was extremely cautious and conscious of not repeating these with my children. I refrained from setting any expectations or any behavioural standards based on their gender. I taught both of them to help me in household work when needed.
I’ve never told my daughter ‘you are a girl’ in any context. Even today, I associate this sentence with an attempt to limit my ability, my freedom, and my dreams.
Even with my utmost concern and awareness about keeping gender out of the conversation, I remember, it was impossible to control what family members or neighbours would comment on. For instance, my son used to be often teased by some relatives as ‘girlish’ for being tearful very frequently.
Leading by examples is the best way to teach
“To be in your children’s lives tomorrow, you have to be in their lives today.”
By the time my son was 12, he started refusing to do dishes, chores or helping me in cooking. More I tried explaining to him the importance of sharing domestic work, the more he started resisting it. At that point I realized, he never saw his father doing any domestic work, which is a very common social norm in India. Most of our close friends and families also have very divisive gender roles when it comes to domestic work. More than what you explicitly tell them, how you as a parent lead your life, influence them the most. It all boils down to leading by example. Our family certainly needed more gender-equal roles.
As boys grow up, they start identifying themselves more with their fathers. I realized my son had probably started considering these works as womanly or feminine.
On the other hand, my daughter would often come and ask me whether I would need any help in the kitchen. If a girl always sees her mother cooking and taking care of family members, no matter how independent or empowered you raise her, she will always have a greater amount of implicit biases about her role as a caregiver of the family.
It all starts with sharing the chores
No matter how insignificant it sounds, gender equality begins with sharing domestic and care work. Though women today are more economically independent, all over the world they spend a lot more time doing unpaid care work than their male family members. This impacts women’s economic and professional performance and growth and makes them more vulnerable to emotional stress and anxiety. Women often seek less demanding careers not because they are less capable, but because they don’t have a strong support system at home. Everyone should equally contribute to all the work at home, irrespective of their gender. Equality in domestic and care work helps families and communities flourish.
Power dynamics between parents affect children
The power dynamics between the parents shape children’s perception of gender roles to a large extent. In many cultures, men are the head of the family and the decision-makers. Women, on the other hand, are not allowed to take any important decisions independently. Men consider reversing the gender rhetoric is equivalent to giving up on their power and privileges. If we want to break these patterns for our future generations, parents should try to be conscious of reversing gender roles.
In short, parents play a very significant role in introducing gender equality at home and in being a role model for their children. In other words, if parents' behaviors promote gender stereotypes, it reinforces the problem. Children growing up in families with huge gender gaps often repeat the same patterns in their adult lives.
We’ve started realizing that we did not want to repeat the same mistakes that our parents made. We’ve made a lot of positive changes in our household in the last year in breaking the division of work. My husband didn’t grow up to have to contribute any chores at home, but he has started doing it now to teach our son the importance of countering traditional gender norms. We do believe that gender equality begins at home. As adults, it’s harder for parents to overcome their own cultural biases. But, once you acknowledge and own your unconscious biases, you can work your way through it!
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Related resources: Gender equality starts at home: Seven tips for raising feminist kids
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