Parents want their kids to grow up free of 'sissy boy' and 'bossy girl' labels

Angelina Jolie has been open about supporting Shiloh's rejection of gender roles.
Angelina Jolie has been open about supporting Shiloh's rejection of gender roles. Photo: Getty Images

It's something feminists have been talking about for decades, but according to a new report by Our Watch, the vast majority of parents want it too: raising children free of gender stereotypes. 

Parents don't want their boys shamed for showing vulnerability, or being gentle and loving. They don't want their girls growing up thinking it's unwomanly to be fierce and ambitious. They want their children to be free to achieve and feel everything they can, because if you ask any parent what they want for their kids, most of them will tell you they just want them to be happy.

But, like the song says, you can't always get what you want.

Children learn about gender roles before they are two years old.
Children learn about gender roles before they are two years old.  

Most of the parents surveyed for the Our Watch report were at least 25 years old, and they grew up in a world where gender equality was talked about, but rarely demonstrated. Their kids were born into a country where all the power groups – government, business, the justice system, music, movies and the arts – are still dominated by men. Men are still earn around twice as much as women and violence is almost always committed by men. The source and cause of this can be traced back to the lessons learned in childhood.

Children learn about gender roles before they are two years old. The stronger those gendered role models are, the more entrenched the stereotyped expectations become. By the time they start school, five-year-olds already know that only "sissy boys" cry, and "bossy" girls are annoying.

We need to live the ideas we want our children to grow up with, not just talk about them.

Little boys learn the power of their rage and the danger of their vulnerability. Little girls know not to laugh too loud or shine too brightly. They learn the power and powerlessness of being pretty and the threat inherent in their own strength.

Parents who don't want those limitations on their children can do an enormous amount. They can teach their children that gender doesn't limit ability or define possibilities. It's an aspect of who you are but not relevant to what you can do.

We can teach our girls to take pride in themselves beyond how they look or their ability to nurture others. We can tell them to take pride in caring for themselves rather than sacrificing self for others. We can tell them that respect is the minimum they should expect from friends, colleagues and especially men. We can tell them that boys who hurt them, diminish their abilities or attempt to have power over them are dangerous, not exciting. We should be telling them their feelings are never frivolously irrational, their wishes are never irrelevant and their rights are always important.

Parents also have an enormous amount to teach their sons. We can tell them it's normal and healthy to cry, feel fear, show affection, ask for help and offer all those things to others. We can tell them that violence is not their only outlet for frustration, and that love is not about control. We should be teaching them that they are responsible for their own lives and that participating equally in the domestic and emotional labour of life is the norm for men.  


We can show them that women and girls are not a mysterious unknowable other, they're people, of equal worth and ability, and that they have equal value as friends, co-workers, role models and inspirations.

And if we teach them these lessons well enough, they might believe us.

But we also need to make sure our children know that the world outside our homes doesn't always expect those things from them.

We need to explain what gendered expectations have been in the past, and that the worst of them still cling perniciously to structures of society and the subconscious attitudes of many people they'll encounter outside the family home.

They need to be prepared for it, to know that they might be told they're a "mummy's boy", "bossy bitch", "hot stuff", "the man of the house" and to immediately recognise such epithets mean the person who says such things has the problem, not the child who hears them.

Our Watch chair Natasha Stott Despoja says she tells the story of her son's former soccer coach telling him to "stop being a mummy's boy" because he showed emotion, sadness even, during a game. Anger in boys is rarely judged, but how can a young boy understand why his coach might reject him for expressing sadness?

This, as Stott Despoja says, is where parents can make be such a force for change and why respectful relationships education in schools is so important. She says how we talk to children matters. That these, and other subtle expressions of gender stereotypes that children absorb, can shape attitudes and expectations into adulthood.

Pushing back against social and cultural expectations of gender can be painful. We need to tell our kids that, and give them the tools to recognise and deal with it.

We, as parents, also need to recognise the lessons we learned growing up. We too were once those children, being told that boys don't cry and girls don't yell. It takes a constant, conscious effort to unlearn them.

Adults who were taught as little children that girls who are pretty and sweet and gentle are the most loveable may not always instantly recognise drive and ambition as loveable characteristics in their daughters, even if it's what they know they want for them.

Likewise, the lessons of toxic masculinity are so insidious that it's not always easy to remember to delight in boys' ability to nurture, or temper their childish inclinations to express frustration with violence.

But teaching those lessons effectively means that we need to unlearn what we ourselves were taught. We need to live the ideas we want our children to grow up with, not just talk about them.

It's not always easy, but the benefits to our sons and daughters and to the world they live in, are immeasurable. And surely worth that extra effort on their behalf.