Last night, my six-year-old son told me he was made fun of and laughed at by his friends at school.

“I was playing with a dollhouse,” he told me when I asked him what the catalyst was. “It’s a girl’s toy.”

In the 21st century, I’d like to think society in general would have learned a thing or two about respect. It would seem I am wrong.

Not a gender identity issue

Let me be clear about one thing. My issue with this incident has nothing to do with gender identity, gender dysphoria or gender expression.

While I recognise those are things parents have passionate opinions on and others may struggle with, this is currently not my fight. I am not raising an agender child. My husband and I may have chosen not to find out my son’s gender till when he was born, but we’ve used male-specific pronouns the second we knew.

I’m not impartial to gender stereotypes either. I talk about the differences in the way most girls and boys play, from their behaviour to what they choose to play with. And so I say things like: My son is more often drawn towards cars, monster trucks and physical activities. Yet that doesn’t mean I’ve denied him playing with dolls, role playing “Mums and Dads” or being a ballerina.

That’s because I believe it’s one thing to recognise the difference between what girls and boys like, it’s quite another to be derisive about it.

My fight is for my son to be allowed to play with whatever he wants to play with (with safety and respect taken into consideration) without being made to feel ashamed, embarrassed or less of a human being than he is. He can identify something as “for boys” or “for girls” but he shouldn’t think only one type is okay for him to play with.

Learning prejudice

The problem I feel about children teasing other kids for playing with a toy that doesn’t fit into a gender stereotype, and in particular boys playing with “girly toys”, is about the type of boys we want to raise.

In The New York Times article “How kids learn prejudice”, Katherine D Kinzler writes, “Children are cultural sponges: They absorb the mores that surround them—how to dress, what to eat, what to say. This is a good thing, all in all, since a major function of childhood is figuring out how to be a proficient adult in a particular society. This means picking up on social norms. Unfortunately, this includes learning your society’s explicit and implicit views of the status and worth of different social groups.”

Our children don’t form opinions in a vacuum. Studies into how children form racial prejudices tell us “three and four-year-olds demonstrate the same level and type of bias as adults. Children ‘get it’ very, very quickly, and that it doesn’t require a mature level of cognition to form negative biases”.

Where do those biases originate? Who have they learned their prejudices from? Explicitly and implicitly, have we as parents transferred a certain type of value judgement and expectation on “what girls do” and “what boys do”, and a particular reaction when it goes against stereotypes or norms?

More broadly speaking, what kind of views are we cultivating in our children of something or someone different from themselves?

It starts with our boys

A few months ago, one of my son’s friends was at our house for a playdate. While in the bathroom, he spotted my son’s toothbrush. It was pink. (I didn’t deliberately set out to buy my son a pink toothbrush to make a statement or teach him a life lesson. It was simply part of a two-pack set at an acceptable price to me.)

“Is this really your toothbrush? Why is it pink?” my son’s friend exclaimed.

“Yes, it’s my toothbrush,” my son matter-of-factly replied.

“But why is it pink? That’s a girl’s colour. Eww!” was the response.

“It’s my toothbrush, my mum bought it for me,” my son continued, getting increasingly confused over the fuss.

My son’s schoolmates laughing at him for playing with a dollhouse meant for girls. My son’s friend outraged he uses a toothbrush in a “girl’s colour”.

How can a boy learn to respect a girl when all he hears are contemptuous comments about things related to them?

How can a boy grow up to be a man who respects women, if he’s told to steer clear of anything remotely feminine?

How can a man respect anything different to him—race, gender, religion—if all he’s known is there is only one acceptable norm and that anything else is subject to ridicule?

Teaching our children to accept difference

I’ve said this before: I am a feminist. Not in the way I feel women and men are the same or that men are the enemy. I accept that men and women are different, but I expect we should still have equal opportunities, equal rights and equal treatment.

It has been almost 200 years since the first wave of feminism began. Today, we have numerous campaigns raising awareness about gender equality, movements to end violence against women and discussions about how best to teach children consent.

As mothers, I believe we have a powerful tool on our side: The ability to shape and influence our sons. Because at the end of the day, us women can do all we want to bring about improvements on a societal level, but imagine the difference it would make if men also believed change needs to happen. Imagine a world where all men respected all women.

It’s the exact reason why the Australian government launched the “Stop it at the start” campaign some six years ago. As mothers, if we bring our sons up to respect women, to respect difference, we will soon have men and women advocating for equal opportunities, equal rights and equal treatment.

Imagine a world where everybody respected difference.

We have a saying at our house: “Different people are different.” The implication is that difference is neither good nor bad, it is simply different and we accept that difference with respect and kindness. We don’t tease and we certainly don’t think any less of the person with the difference.

As a Christian, this is the viewpoint I believe my God wants me to have. After all, the Bible records the one “rule” Jesus said we should live by: “Love each other as I have loved you.” We can’t love if we don’t accept.

My son also identifies “boy things” and “girly things”, but there is no disgust or aversion towards what he deems to be for girls. At the same time, I continue to have conversations with him about the reasons behind his categorisation and its myriad ways of interpretation and implication.

As a friend remarked when I shared my thoughts with her, “Girly things also include being in touch with our emotions, embracing our sensitive sides and being empathetic. Surely those are good things?”

And if you’re wondering, after my son told me about his schoolmates’ reaction, I told him how silly I thought his friends were.

“There’s nothing wrong with playing with a girl’s toy,” I told him.

“It’s okay Mummy, I know to ignore them,” he replied.

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