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Inclusion Column

Expanding Horizons

By Cordelia de la Garza, Nursery Educational Assistant

How can we increase our children’s self esteem and nurture their developing minds? Providing gender-neutral environments and encouraging mixed-gender friendships are approaches worth exploring.

Have you ever wondered why boys and girls are expected to follow specific behaviors? Gender roles start even before babies are born. Even the adjectives we use vary for boys and girls: big and strong vs. sweet and pretty. Cultural gender stereotypes such as, “boys don’t cry”, or “girls are better at cooking'' pave the way to gender roles and predisposing factors. Is it always that boys and men must be confident, ambitious, aggressive, rough, and brave to be accepted by society? Why does our culture expect girls and women to be passive, well-mannered, empathetic, sensitive, and obedient? Despite gains in closing the gender inequality gap throughout the years, gender bias remains in our society.

As parents or educators, we can work towards lessening this issue by implementing gender-neutral environments. In such environments boys and girls feel confident playing freely in any activity, including those which are stereotypically of the opposite gender. Supporting children while they explore different activities, promotes assertiveness and builds self-esteem. Can “arts and crafts” help develop creativity in boys that are to become future designers, engineers or architects? In the same manner, would our future female leaders in business and politics benefit from practicing teamwork and competitiveness in soccer, or learning discipline through karate? The greater the exposure to gender-neutral environments, the more interests and hobbies they can pursue, translating into children of both genders developing a varied array of skills and competencies. A great way to explore gender-neutral play happens when kids play with friends from the opposite gender.

Encouraging children to have opposite gender friends will bring them amazing benefits. For starters, they have double the amount of friends. Moreover, boys and girls have a lot to teach each other. For example, they can learn new conflict resolution strategies, as boys tend to focus on rules, while girls are usually interested in talking through a problem. By playing together, they are exposed to a widened range of personalities and perspectives. 

How can you encourage boy-girl relationships? Pay attention to the child’s interests and support relationships that nurture them, no matter their gender. Read books about mixed-gender friendships; they can show children that the quality of a relationship is more important than the gender of the friend. Never sexualize or add a romantic element to a girl-boy friendship; it can lead some children to avoid such bonds. When friendships focus on the inner person regardless of their gender, a more natural and special type of bond may occur.

Amazing things happen when we get rid of gender stereotypes; when girls are allowed to dress up as doctors and build block towers and when boys play with toy kitchens or play family! Presenting children with a variety of play options, toys, and friends will always help their creativity and imagination grow. We, as parents and educators have a chance to positively influence our children. Are gender-neutral environments worth implementing? Are mixed-gender relationships worth encouraging? What would our children be missing out on if we don’t?