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Values & Education

Breaking Stereotypes


Stereotypes have always been around since time immemorial. They still exist. No, wait! They don’t merely exist. They abound. Oh yes, they do.

Looking at the concept from the point of view of children, how early do you think stereotypes begin to manifest themselves in children’s minds ? It is a known fact that children pick up even the smallest of cues from their primary caregivers, be it visual cues or behavioural patterns. It is also an established fact that children can distinguish between genders fairly early on in life. Children learn at a very early age what it means to be a boy or a girl in society.

As they move from infancy to childhood onto teens and beyond, all along they are continuously exposed to factors which influence their attitudes and behaviour in terms of gender roles and expectations. These behavioural patterns are usually learnt first at home, supplemented by a range of external inputs in the form of ads, TV, movies, books, peers, teachers etc. According to studies conducted, children as early as 3 years old begin to apply gender labels and gender based stereotypes.

Parents do play a large role, overtly or covertly, in establishing stereotypes and gender differences in children. Right from the time children are young, it is quite the norm to dress children in gender specific colours, to expose them to gender based toys and in general, have different expectations from boys and girls in terms of behaviour. Children internalise these messages that parents send out, albeit inadvertently, and that sets the tone and the basis for further stereotypes to work their way into those young minds.

Many a parent the world over encourages (actively or passively) their child or children to take part in gender based play activities. Girls have play dates wherein they play with dolls or a kitchen set or afternoon tea. Boys are nudged towards activities that are essentially rough and tough sport based or activities which involve toy cars, trucks etc. Girls’ rooms tend to have pink walls while boys’ rooms tend to be done in tones of blue.

There are so many ads which still pander to stereotypes – either in creating them or by way of fuelling already existing ones. I still remember the Kinder chocolate ads. Chocolates, for the love of God, are something everybody loves (almost!) – kids especially. Why unnecessarily complicate something as simple as chocolates by labelling blue Kinder eggs for boys and pink ones for girls ? Well, because there are takers the world over for the ‘pink for girls and blue for boys’ concept even today. There were supposed to be dolls inside the pink Kinder eggs and toy cars in the blue ones! Well, I rest my case.

Looking back at my own childhood, there have been multiple times when I’d left my grandmother horrified when I fixed things in the house – fuse wires, washers in the taps, electrical plugs and what have you. I’ve made things with wood and a saw. It was simply not acceptable to my grandmother who was convinced there was something very basically wrong with my head. On the other hand, when I used to indulge in painting – water colours, ceramics etc., it used to be encouraged because artistic expression in the form of painting is seen as something feminine. I should have started painting the walls in the house, I tell you. That would have been deemed a definite no no!

Now, more than three decades later, I see stereotypes still influencing behavioural patterns. The other day, an argument broke out amongst some 7-8 year – olds at school in the classroom. The whole thing apparently started because the class monitor was a girl and many of the boys simply refused to listen to her because they did not want to take instructions from a girl. According to the boys, they would listen to a boy monitor but not a girl monitor.

One six year old boy at school thought it was perfectly fine to kick (physically and actually kick) some of the girls in his class at the end of the day, as he walked out with his school bag. Some little girls at school say they like wearing dresses and only dresses. They shun the idea of even wearing jeans and a T-shirt because they are not seen as ‘girls clothes’. Boys think it is perfectly fine to walk with a swagger and shoulder people along the way – just because they think it is acceptable male behaviour. On the other hand, a boy at school who enjoys creative hobbies is decidedly looked down upon by his peers simply because he does not go around behaving like someone high on testosterone.

This is where parents can play an important role in trying to create atmospheres that are decidedly gender neutral. Statements like ‘boys don’t cry’ and ‘girls are supposed to be soft spoken, polite and gentle’ need to be shown the door as soon as possible. It could help if the emphasis is shifted more towards the child’s abilities, traits, interests and hobbies rather than fixed societal standards that they are expected to adhere to.

That is what my next post will be about. The things parents can possibly do to avoid stereotypes from setting in as well as the things we have adopted and put into practice when parenting our kids.

How about you? What do you do to try and prevent stereotypes from setting in or breaking stereotypes already settled in? A penny for your thoughts!

Gauri Venkitaraman dons many hats – a wife, a mom, a teacher and many more. Working as a full-time English teacher in HongKong, Gauri also raises and nurtures two terrors, affectionately known as The Nutty Siblings a.k.a Macadamia, a teen and Pecan, the ten-year old who behaves like he is fifteen. Gauri’s family means the world to her. Life is a lively roller coaster ride and we, as a family, aim to enjoy the ride together. is where Gauri pens down her thoughts and musings, in an attempt to preserve memories for posterity.