Test Case

A self-help book editor uses what she learns at work and in life to help herself.

Why Boys Belong in the Kitchen and Girls in the Garage

Gender stereotypes are outdated and harmful

My parents divorced when I was 15. It was hard, but my mom rose to the occasion because she had no choice. I watched her get re-certified in her field, go back to work after 15 years of being a stay-at-home mom, and simultaneously cope with the reality of being a newly single mother and a co-parent while moving on from what had been a difficult relationship.

During this time, my mom decided she was going to change the oil in her car by herself. I'm not sure if it was a money issue or something she decided to tackle for personal reasons, but I remember vividly the moment she came back into the house after having successfully changed her oil. The victory in her eyes lit up her whole face. In my simplistic teenage interpretation, that was the moment she got over the divorce and moved on with her life. And in that moment I learned a lot about the power of competence, about the arbitrary nature of gender roles, and about the joy of succeeding at something new. It's a strong memory for me even now.

A couple of months ago, I noticed that my car headlight had burned out. At first I thought about which men in my life I could ask for help. A year or so before, my dad had fixed a burned-out brake light on my car, so I thought about asking him. But then, a voice in my head said “Why don't you just do it yourself?” I went on to YouTube and found a video for how to replace the headlamp bulb on my make and model of car, and one day, I got under the hood with a screwdriver and a pair of pliers, and I did it. I replaced the headlight bulb. And boy, was I proud, even though it's really pretty easy. I was proud because I'd always been taught—my mom's oil-changing notwithstanding—that girls don't do that stuff.

Girls and boys have for generations been treated as though these classic gender divisions of skill sets (men know about engines and how to shoot a gun; women know how to wash clothes and hold babies) have a basis in physiological or psychological differences between the genders. And while it's true that men and women have some brain differences (though it's not clear if these are rooted in nature or nurture), there is simply no reason a girl can't learn how a car engine works or a boy can't learn how to cook a good meal. Most rational people know this to be true. However, differences in what we expect boys and girls to know how to do seem to stick around stubbornly, like a bad idea.

Marriage was originally developed for many reasons, all of them practical. It was about raising kids, combining resources between families, and forming a partnership of survival. Traditional gender roles, whatever you may think of them, made sense in that it's more efficient for individuals in a partnership to specialize in different tasks than to do the same tasks. But now, with traditional marriage on the wane, fewer people marrying, people waiting until they're older to marry, and men and women more free than ever before to take on whatever roles they wish, traditional gender roles are becoming less and less relevant to our society.

And with men and women spending more time single than ever before, what happens when they're only competent in their gender-specific roles? I can tell you: You have men who think food is supposed to come in plastic packaging and full of chemicals, and who can't identify what certain vegetables look like in the supermarket, and you have women who don't know how to take care of their cars or who pay a lot of money to male contractors to do basic things around the house. You have men who drink themselves to death or get in fights because they can't deal with difficult emotions, and women who feel so incompetent in the world that they stay with men who are bad for them just because they don't feel they can survive without a man.

If we're to give our kids the space to develop into competent, industrious humans who don't have to depend on anyone else for their wellbeing—and who are thus free to choose healthy relationships rather than relationships based on dependence, and to choose life paths that speak to their hearts rather than those limited by what's considered “normal” based on their gender—we need to teach them how to take care of themselves. That means teaching boys to cook, and teaching girls about engines. Teaching boys how to do laundry and girls how to negotiate for a raise. Teaching boys how to have an emotionally difficult conversation and girls how to fix things around the house.

I know lots of men who are far more competent in the kitchen than I am and many women who are handy with power tools, so I realize that not everyone is bound by these stereotypes. But I also notice my own and other women's hesitation when attempting to do something that's supposedly masculine, and I feel limited by that hesitation and insecurity. And I notice men who repeatedly withdraw from emotionally complex conversations and situations—or worse, who have entrenched unhealthy habits that are killing them—because they don't understand how to deal with difficult feelings that come up.

I want to tell every parent: Be sure your kids have the skills they need to survive and thrive in the new age. Be sure your boys can cook, clean, take care of their own health and hygiene, express themselves, cope with their emotional life, and care for living creatures; be sure your girls can deal with money and numbers, handle basic tools, understand how cars and computers work, take control of their own sexuality, and speak assertively and confidently. It'll be a great world when none of us are bound by old, tired gender rules that are no longer relevant.

Melissa Kirk is a writer and editor who works as an acquisitions and developmental editor at New Harbinger Publications, a self-help psychology publisher in Oakland, CA. 

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