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Tykes and their likes: Messaging should be about kindness, respect for self and others

Posted February 16

I have a male friend who worries because his young son likes to play with dolls. I have a female friend who worries because her daughter likes to play with dolls.

The worries seem the same, but the reasoning couldn't be more different.

He's afraid his boy will grow up with the wrong idea of what it means to be a man. My young friend is stalwart and stoic and a lovely guy, but he shows the world a macho face.

My girlfriend stresses because she feels like her daughter may limit herself too much if she cleaves to traditional-girl toys and pursuits.

Gender stereotypes are getting a lot of press these days. Quite a bit of recent research suggests that girls may sell themselves short in terms of intellectual and career pursuits if they stick too close to gender stereotypes of man as brave and smart and woman as kind and hard-working. The harmful stereotypes boys may pick up include stoicism and aggression.

A Brigham Young University study found last summer that girls who embrace "princess culture" too closely may not see themselves as capable of mastering math or science, of becoming aviators or scientists or engineers, for example. They may limit their futures.

Science just published a study that shows by age 6 girls believe boys are more likely to be "really, really smart" than girls with similar results.

Meanwhile, if boys pay too much attention to superheroes, recent BYU research published in Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology suggests they tend to embrace the bam-pow aggressive traits of the protagonists, instead of seeing that superheroes fight to help those who are being harmed in some way. They're doing good.

I see nothing wrong with people choosing traditional roles; but they should know it's OK to break out of them, too.

When I had my first child 20 years ago, a wise friend provided what would be my daughter's first book — and it's still among my favorites: "The Paper Bag Princess," by Robert Munsch. The simple storyline is about setting aside stereotypes to craft an independent and exuberant life. The princess is in trouble, but she doesn't have to be rescued. And the prince doesn't necessarily have to extricate them both, either.

I was raised by parents who ran a family business together. Dad was a piano tuner, but without Mom doing the finances and booking the jobs, he would have been an idle one. Because most of her part of the business took place at night, he was also the chief cook.

My sister and brothers and I were all taught to do basics like cook and sew, check the oil in the car or change a tire. We were expected to be capable.

The girls didn't get a pass on math and science because of some fiction that says the concepts are harder for girls. Some people do math or science more easily than others because they have a natural ability, but it's not gender-based. And anyone can do the work and master it. Nobody would dream of suggesting other subjects, like reading, writing, Spanish, history or arts come more easily to one gender than the other.

We were also expected to nurture and help. Kindness and courtesy were valued — and they were the responsibility of boys and girls alike. I honestly cried more with my dad over sad books than I ever did with my mom. He was tough and capable and soft and caring. She was tough and capable and (not quite as) soft and caring, too. It was a matter of their personal makeup, not their gender.

It wasn't about being the same. We each have different skills and interests and those will, logically, drive our dreams and paths. But when it comes to being brave and smart and kind and hard-working, we can all step up.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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