I was buying more shorts for my little one and speaking to another Kindy parent whilst waiting in line at the uniform shop. Our conversation was a reminder of just how strongly ingrained in school cultures it is for girls to wear skirts and dresses. It went like this:
Mum: I wish Aisha* would wear shorts and a top to school. All she’ll wear is the skort and top.
Me: Yes, I don’t see the point in the skort, it just has an unnecessary flap, shorts are far more practical and cheaper.
Mum: I know right. Aisha won’t wear shorts though, she says they’re for boys.
Me: Oh, that’s not true, Evie wears shorts, you should tell Aisha that.
Mum: I just wish that she’d wear something else. We have the dress too, Aisha says that all the girls wear dresses. She’s only 5! I understand that as she gets older it will matter what she looks like and she’ll want to wear a dress, but not at 5.
Me: Well, we need more girls to wear shorts so that it just becomes normal, we know it’s the best uniform choice for them being physically active, particularly at high school. And we know girls want to be judged on their ability, not on what they look like.
Mum: I know, but the dress cost $50, she said that she wanted it, because the other girls wear them and now will only wear the skort and top.
Me: Why don’t you bring the dress back and swap it?
Mum: She wore it last week and I forced her to wear it today, even though she didn’t want to, it cost $50…and it looks really cute.
What does this conversations show us?
It shows us that sometimes as parents we struggle to challenge gender stereotypes from our own children. It often seems easier to go with a strong-willed child’s insistence that only girls wear dresses – to give a shrug and say ‘what can you do?’ We know that there are strong messages from society still that girls should wear dresses and boys wear pants and shorts. We’re often, as parents, keen that our children conform to the ‘right way’ of expressing their gender identity. We know that if our girls want to wear dresses and skirts, then they’re sitting comfortably within their gender stereotype and won’t be pushing against society’s expectations.
Our role as parents is to help our children to critically analyse stereotypes, particularly when we know they’re misguided. Children with a fixed view on gender absorb that from somewhere. We need to help our children think through why they think certain things about gender. And we also need to look at ourselves to see if we’re reinforcing gender stereotypes by avoiding the conversation. The discussion is an ongoing one, it’s not said once, it needs to be constantly talked about to counter the strong pressures from media and society about ‘how to be a girl’ and ‘how to be a boy.’
We do need more parents supporting girls to wear shorts and pants to school because changing culture doesn’t happen if we keep doing what we’ve always done. If we keep sending girls to school in dresses and skirts, despite knowing the evidence that shows it limits girls, we’re holding them back.