Kate Roberts Ph.D.

Savvy Parenting

Leaning Into Parenting Breaks Down Gender Stereotypes

Parents who role model non-gender stereotypes raise less biased children.

Posted Jul 30, 2014

As someone who serves in roles of the breadwinner and full-time mom, there are fewer gender stereotypes that occur in my home than in the society at large. This really isn’t the way I planned it, it’s just our reality. I know how important both my “jobs “are to the functioning of our household.

Despite the importance of what I provide, my younger son has internalized gender stereotypes particularly regarding sports and the role of moms and women in sports. I think he gets this mostly from me and my lack of participation in his sports activities other than through a spectator role. But that changed recently.

He was completely awed when I showed up with my new baseball glove a couple of weeks ago because he needed to practice pitching and the men (his dad and step-dad) were not available to practice with him. Previously during my son’s baseball career, I bought into the gender stereotype that baseball is for males only.

However, after reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandburg, I decided it was time for me to do just that. When I saw my son’s frustration at not getting the necessary practice time in, I had to ask myself why I wasn’t leaning in and providing him a practice partner. I am not a baseball player and in fact I‘ve never owned a glove, but I am an athlete, and other than gender expectations of roles, there really is no reason why I can’t throw, catch and serve as a much needed practice partner for my son.

I don't expect to be the person teaching the pitching, that’s what his coaches do, but at only the age of 8, he’s certainly still benefits from practicing with me. I even organized a baseball game with my two boys ages 8 and 11 and their five male friends ages 8-11. We all had a blast and they were all surprised at how well I played.

Parents do need to lean in both for reasons of parenting and to disavow gender stereotypes. My ability to be helpful on the ball field made me question what had stopped me previously from stepping into this role for my son. I have been practically begging the dads all season for practice time for my son and instead I could have just provided those 20-30 minutes a day myself. It would have been more fun, saved wasted energy and empowered both me and my son; thank you Sheryl Sandburg.

I know having me as a practice partner has been helpful to my son in many ways. Obviously he’s getting the practice that he can’t seem to get enough of, but as important he is viewing me in a different light and we are connecting on yet another level. He sees me as someone who is willing to step outside my comfort zone and do what is necessary to parent him effectively, regardless of my gender.

And yet as impactful as this experience has been on my son, it’s probably been even more meaningful to me. I allowed myself to take a risk and do something uncomfortable, namely because I didn’t want to watch my son suffer in his frustration. Historically I have been one of those moms who is more willing to step out of my gender role because of my responsibilities as parent and less likely to do that for myself as a person.

Whether it’s going to laser quest, doing math homework, playing baseball, teaching my sons to ride a bike or putting food on the table, the more I do, the more I recognize that my gender does not have to limit me in any way, and in reality it’s my attitude towards my gender that limits me, when I allow it to.

For children who are raised in gender role specific environments, gender stereotypes are more difficult to break. Studies have shown that parents’ teach most effectively through modeling and therefore those who model behaviors that are non-gender specific will raise children with less gender biases. I often tell myself that I am a man in a woman’s body. It would be great to evolve to a place where I truly feel like a woman in a woman’s body because there are no distinctions between what women and men represent and accomplish.

References: Parental Influence on Children's Socialization to Gender Roles, Adolescence, Summer, 1997, Susan D. Witt, PhD, University of Akron

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