Culture At Large

Kids, gender and how we're losing the middle

Cathy Smith

The same day I read Amy Adair’s TC post on Cinderella culture, I heard about Walmart’s launch of a new makeup line for 8- to 12-year-old girls. The introduction of GeoGirl makeup products for tweens, including anti-aging ingredients, has caused some controversy. This cosmetics line certainly seems to reinforce the need for conscientious parenting, especially for Christians who want to instill values that go beyond surface beauty.

I appreciate especially what Amy said about wanting not only her daughter to see beyond Cinderella culture, but also her sons. The proliferation of books and articles about boys and the pressures they experience makes it clear that not only do boys have to be encouraged to value character and strength in girls, girls may need to be encouraged to value more than machismo in boys as well.

Here’s what I see in this tsunami of sex stereotyping targeted at ever younger children. We are eliminating the middle. As a girl, I didn’t play with dolls. I rode horses, climbed trees and hung out with the guys, quoting hockey stats with the best of them. My brother was bookish, not quite so rough-and-ready. But our gender didn’t define us. It wasn’t in the forefront. We both loved to read and to collect stamps. I liked to muck out the stalls in our neighbor’s barn. My brother liked to stay indoors and build stuff with his Erector set. Today that middle ground has disappeared. Our children are not free to explore and figure out what they are interested in. The parameters of childhood are already indelibly inked by curvy princesses and behemoth Transformers.

I have two suggestions to recover that middle ground. One is theological; the other practical. Theologically speaking, we need to look beyond gender. Redemption is for all who call on the name of the Lord. When we come to the cross bearing our sin and brokenness, we’re not segregated. It’s our common human condition that requires divine intervention. The gospel of grace is that God moved, God became incarnate, God hung on a cross, God bent down to teach us to walk and to feed us. Believers, regardless of gender, are restored through the victorious sacrifice of Jesus. There is God. There is humanity. The bridge in the middle is Jesus. So I would urge that when we have the joyous privilege of sharing Scripture with children, we take care to highlight and affirm our common humanity over our gender.

Practically speaking, we need to be pro-active in inoculating children against the prevailing sex stereotyping of our culture. Here’s a few simple examples from the classroom. I’m retired now, but as a teacher I sought to implement strategies that focused on togetherness over separateness. When it was time to work in pairs or groups, a structured rotation was in place. The roster ensured that boys and girls worked together. Games or activities that pitted boys against girls were avoided. Teams were selected by non-gender-based norms. Girls and boys were assigned the same classroom duties, whether straightening the shoes in the hallway, cleaning out paint jars or operating the video equipment. Students were encouraged to view themselves as partners in learning.

We can do the same in our families. We can teach our children to be inclusive in their relationships. We can support our children in the pursuit of their own interests and hobbies regardless of how they might be perceived by others. We can be commentators and interpreters for our children when we see illegitimate and unjust stereotyping in society and in the media.

Both girls and boys need strong biblical direction to learn that what’s crucial is not our differences, but our similarities. Children can learn that we are all created by God, redeemed by the Savior and counseled by the Holy Spirit, a Spirit who does not care whether we are pretty or strong, but whether we demonstrate “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

I wonder: Is this even possible? Can we realistically de-emphasize gender? Are there reasons not to do so?

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