Gender Stereotypes: Colour Coding Children

My son was barely a week old when I took him to a work gathering dressed in a cute little hungry caterpillar outfit (see photo). The guy I was chatting away to seemed to be slightly uncomfortable when he explained, ‘it’s difficult because you didn’t colour code the baby’. It took me a while to work out what he meant. Should I have been in a matching outfit? I do like the hungry caterpillar after all, but I’ve never seen it in adult size clothing. Then it clicked. Gender stereotypes. My son wasn’t in pink or blue, therefore he didn’t know if this little bundle of joy was a boy or a girl. But surely that didn’t matter? I mean, how on earth could it matter? He was six days old.

Oh, how wrong I was.colour coded children

When my son was less than 24 hours old, and still in the hospital, the gender stereotypes started and I learnt about how ‘different’ he was because he was a boy.  Apparently, being a boy meant he would be harder to breastfeed. I was struggling with the whole latching on thing and in my sleep deprived craziness I assumed this was a ‘fact’, a strange fact that I didn’t understand but surely a fact if someone official was telling me this.  I’ve since realised that as my son didn’t use his genitals during breastfeeding I don’t think that interfered with his struggle to breastfeed.

Overtime it’s become apparent that people want my child colour coded so they know how to treat him. Without the colour coding they are often at a loss as to what to say and how to interpret his behaviour. If my child had been in blue then this man would have known to make a joke about him eyeing up the girls across the room when his eyes flickered. Instead, without this, he didn’t know how to interpret my son’s grip on his finger – was there a girly softness to her skin, or the strong manly grip of a baby boy? Gender stereotypes can tell us all about a child’s personality it seems.

It hasn’t got better as he’s grown. My son faces gender stereotypes sexist drivel most days. Don’t get me wrong, I know girls and women bear the brunt of sexism in the UK, from physical abuse to workplace discrimination. But that’s my whole issue; the two are inextricably linked. If you’re going colour code my child so you know how to treat him and then limit his opportunity to be a caring, equality-loving boy who can play with whatever he likes, then really you’re telling me that the sexism that girls and women experience on a daily basis doesn’t really matter either. If you want to push my son in to being a ‘big boy’ and ‘man up’ and hide his feelings, how will he be emotionally literate as an adult?

At barely six months old he shovelled some dirt in his mouth – apparently because he was a boy. The baby girls in the group weren’t into eating the dirt because it would mess up their clothes. I’m not even going to comment on the craziness of that idea. I often just end up keeping quiet because I’m not even sure where to begin with such mind-boggling statements.

As he’s got older all the comments about him being such a boy have notched up a gear or two. Obviously he loves cars, balls, climbing and wrestling – or so says almost everyone we meet. One occasion when he tried to kiss his friend and fell on top of him the adults around all chimed in to say he was such a boy with his love of wrestling. My son had no idea what wrestling was, he just wanted a kiss.

I’m sure it all sounds harmless enough on the face of it. It’s not like people are telling him he must never be a good caring father, or that all girls should be image obsessed, and a little bit of aggression didn’t harm anyone. Or are they? From where I’m  standing that’s exactly what he is hearing. It’s a very simple, age appropriate message but it comes across loud and clear. It scares me that he may slowly, but surely, be learning not to show his affection through kisses and cuddles but through (play) fighting. Not because he was born with that as an innate part of his identity but because he’s gently but consistently, been encouraged into that throughout his formative years.

When people tell me my son will love all the toy cars at their house they aren’t saying it because they know my son loves cars, he’s not really in to them more than any other toy, they are just assuming he will love them. They never think to mention the dolls, or dressing up toys they have. He loves dolls and building blocks. His interests are diverse, his interests don’t yet know what he’s supposed to like. He especially loves those dolls that cry – they merge his two current obsessions – babies and crying – he’s intrigued by both. I worry that slowly these interests will get narrowed to a few. I worry that through this encouragement of “boys’ toys”, he’ll forget what fun he used to have with his dolls. Or maybe, even worse, he will learn that such toys are not acceptable and he will learn to hide these interests, lest he be bullied.

That is the saddest part of all this – that the children are listening to these comments constantly muttered around them. Over time, they too come to associate certain traits with a specific gender. Apparently by the age of three, children can tell you what toys are for girls/ boys, and by four they can tell you what things boys/ girls do. I don’t know at what age they become so convinced by this association that they mock children who blur these lines, but I imagine it’s not far behind.

Sometimes these gender stereotypes can become an easy get out clause. My son can be quite rambunctious. Many times this behaviour is met with comments of, ‘oh typical boy’. Whilst it doesn’t sit right with me to think it’s all about his genitals (again), I do find myself relaxing a little. These three little words let me feel it’s not my fault that he’s ‘misbehaving’, they let me feel a little less worried if I don’t have the energy to teach him to be less pushy/pully/snatchy that day. It makes me feel that he (and therefore I) are under less scrutiny to behave (deal with his behaviour). Hell, if people are going to give him some additional leeway because he’s a boy then a part of me (mainly the exhausted mum part) would really like to grab this leeway with both hands and let him run riot whilst I roll my eyes at the ceiling and say ‘bloody boys, huh’. But if I’m thinking that, then what’s he internalising as acceptable behaviour from all these little comments?

I hear many parents insist that their child does conform to the gender stereotypes and that’s just who they are. Maybe that’s true. But perhaps we should ask why. Stereotypes develop for different reasons – many boyhood stereotypes just reflect what society want boys to be like, so can we really be so sure they aren’t being pushed that way? A slow but consistent gentle shove since the day they were born? I can see that happening to my son and I try so hard to avoid it. Are there genuinely no other traits your child has that don’t fit into some rigid gender stereotype? Perhaps you just haven’t noticed, or have (subconsciously) overlooked them? After all, it doesn’t fit with what you have been told day in day out about how a girl/ boy should behave. And it’s unlikely others (nursery, friends, family etc) will feedback on those other traits so it becomes pretty easy to overlook them and eventually pretty easy for your child to do the same.

Maybe if we stopped colour coding our children we could learn not to treat them as pinks and blues. And maybe, just maybe, if we could just let them do their thing, and have similar expectations of them, then we might surprise ourselves with a generation of adults who don’t fulfil our human-made gender stereotypes and treat men and women equally. That is something I for one would love to see.


If you liked this post on gender stereotypes you might also like such a boy, how I’m raising my son as a feminist and when my son wears a skirt

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33 comments on “Gender Stereotypes: Colour Coding Children

  1. Totally agree. I hear all the same statements about my son being “typical boy” this and that. It’s outrageous really.

  2. All true. Our three boys (now late 20s/early 30s!) were all completely different, but all ‘typical boys’ in different ways! Magical logic

  3. I have two typical boys… as different as night and day. They love dirt. wrestling. football and shouting. They alos love planting flowers, watching bees, cooking, looking after babies (they have their own) and yes they have parroted back “that’s a girls toy” to me but I always ask them why. Why is a baby doll and pram a girls toy when men are fathers and take care of children too?

    • Ellamental Mama

      June 7, 2016 at 9:58 am Reply

      Kids have such diverse interests so long as we allow them to grow and explore them. I think it’s great that you question those judgements they are making, but it’s a shame that kids are already thinking that through what society tells them, of course boys can play with dolls and I’m sure it helps them develop their caring side. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  4. So true. I have stood in a room while my daughter climbed up to the back of the sofa and jumped off it squealing, repeatedly, constantly, in a giddy, boisterous, borderline-hysterical loop, while listening to someone tell me how lucky I was to have a nice, quiet, girl. Evidence is nothing. For the most part, I ducked this as much as I could, by not colour coding, not having their hair particularly long or short, and never correcting anyone who guessed wrong – just smiling to myself when someone praised the courage of the bold boy (my daughter) clambering to the top of the climbing frame, or chided their own daughter to be more careful around the delicate little girl (my son)

    • Ellamental Mama

      June 7, 2016 at 9:56 am Reply

      This made me chuckle… so funny that people think these things so subconsciously that even with the exact opposite happening they will continue with the stereotype. Thanks for commenting.

  5. I really and truly believe in not gender stereotyping children. However, I struggle with others messages to her. Like your son she loves dolls and cars (can you believe that?!) but over the three small years of her life, she is picking up from somewhere that she should be playing with dolls more. It’s not coming from me, but where? I once heard someone tell her, that because she was playing in mud and had a dirty dress, she wasn’t very ladylike! She was one, but I didn’t challenge it as I wasn’t pretty taken aback!! I have started to challenge because I believe it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure all children grow up to be who they are, liking what they want to like and do what they want to do. Anyway rant over, thank you for your article, it was a great read.

    • Ellamental Mama

      June 7, 2016 at 9:53 am Reply

      Exactly, that’s the annoying thing, we can’t stop our kids from experiencing these kinds of comments from around them. At some point they start to internalise it. Then we are all wondering why girls feel this pressure to have a certain body shape/ image – it starts so young and is so ingrained around us. So sad. Well done for challenging it, it’s a really hard one to do.

  6. My son (2yo) has a very gentle facial features and has beautiful blonde long hair. All I keep hearing is “what a pretty girl”. It always drives me mad, why would people assume he is a girl just based on the fact he has long hair. When I say he is a boy they usually say why has he long hair then! I find that sexist that only girls “should” have long hair.

    • Ellamental Mama

      June 7, 2016 at 9:52 am Reply

      How annoying, it’s totally sexist! I bet your son looks gorgeous!

      • I also have a blond, long-haired 2 year old son. 🙂 People assume he’s a girl all the time, especially when I put his hair back for him — to keep it out of his face. I never correct people that say “she,” nor does it make me angry. Being called a girl isn’t an insult. I figure everyone is doing the best they can in a world that has given them a limited view of possibilities. If they said something nice, I say thank you. Then I move on.

        • Ellamental Mama

          June 7, 2016 at 9:29 pm Reply

          So true, it’s not an insult at all. I often do correct people when they think my son is a girl. Perhaps there’s no need but I still tend to. If they apologise though I tell them it’s ok, he’s not offended because there’s nothing wrong with being a girl ?

          • I think it’s important to do this – if only to make people think about why they assumed a certain child was a boy not girl, or vice versa, and also whether this actually matters. I have a daughter that is frequently taken for a boy. It doesn’t bother me but I do point it out to people (yes, shock horror, a girl can have short hair and wear jeans and a tshirt and climb things).

          • Ellamental Mama

            June 8, 2016 at 7:56 am

            Ive always wondered why the apologies too, like getting the gender wrong is really awful when it really doesn’t matter – or shouldn’t if we just treated kids as kids and not blues and pinks!

          • Ellamental Mama

            June 8, 2016 at 7:59 am

            Yes I think that’s a good point, by letting them know they have got it wrong their own assumptions of what makes a girl or a boy is challenged. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  7. I always remember buying my son a Hoover for Christmas, he loved it. My father in law said, that’s a girls toy, he can’t have that. I asked why not? Don’t you Hoover the house? He said that’s different! I asked how? He wants to be like you and Hoover! ? Never told me I got him a girls toy again. Also the great thing about having 2 genders is that you get every toy, and they all play with every toy, my son actually did loves cars, and barbies, and dolls and prams. He loved dressing up in tutu’s and putting on makeup and my high heels, my youngest daughter also loved playing with cars and my little pony’s (horse mad) she still loves anything to do with cars. And pony’s although they are now real ones!

    • Sounds like a fab childhood you gave them and such diverse interests, just goes to show most kids would probably be like that given half the chance.

  8. Nicola Kamminga

    June 8, 2016 at 3:34 am Reply

    My kids are 3yo and 14mo and share clothes. People get there gender wrong all the time and rush to apologise when they noticd me using a different pronoun which baffles me; why be so apologetic?

    • Because people get really, really upset when you get it wrong. When I met other mums I quickly – not quickly enough though and that cost me a few future friends I am sure – learned to look at the colour coding so I could get the gender right. Very helpful to avoid fatal faux pas in the new-mummy world.

      ‘What a lovely baby! What’s her name’ I would say. To instantly be corrected in an unfriendly way it was actually a boy. That’s how you learn. That’s why people are apologetic, and most likely also why the man you write about in your blog was confused. He just wanted to be polite and say the right thing.

      I do agree though, people do like to put boys and girls into boxes too much in the UK.

      • Yeah to an extent it’s that, this strange fear of getting it wrong. I don’t mind. It’s not bad to be a girl or a boy and I’d never mind a mistake being made either way. I find it strange that some people do. This guy knew I’d had a boy though so it wasn’t that he didn’t know what sex he was, just that he thought I should make it clear for everyone. To be honest, that’s one of the least bad things my son has experienced though. All the assumptions about my son’s behaviour because he’s a boy is hilarious. Like at six months eating soil cause he’s a boy. Yeah right, it was cause he was six months. The little girl with him was pulled back off the soil and told not to get her dress dirty… Eventually that stuff affects kids.

  9. At the age of four my son with an “old-fashioned pudding bowl” haircut and a bright red duffle coat was constantly being referred to a a girl. He still (at 10) prefers his hair on the long side (after all his father has a ponytail). Although he is keen on trains (and other forms of transport) he is also keen on dance (and does ballet despite being the only boy in his dance school). Contrary to most people’s assumptions he does not enjoy any form of football.

    I also found it really difficult to get clothes that were not covered in “daddy’s little monster” or “here comes trouble” or similar slogans or made in camouflage fabric.

    • Ellamental Mama

      June 8, 2016 at 8:02 pm Reply

      It’s so annoying isn’t it. Just walk into a kids clothing shop and there is a small rail with stuff for ‘boys’ and an array of stuff for ‘girls’. I hate that the stuff intended for boys is often so dull and with silly slogans like you say. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      • I’ve ended up buying boys clothes a lot for my 2 girls. Mainly coats, jeans and shirts. The boy section coats were often more practical (darker easy-wash colours, thicker material, reflective piping), jeans weren’t all skin tight and shorts reached below hip-grazing hot-pant level. They still live in a certain high street brand of ‘boys’ jeans which has a straight leg, good denim and is much cheaper than the ‘girls’ offering.

        • Ellamental Mama

          May 21, 2017 at 9:22 am Reply

          I don’t blame you for all those reasons! Ironically my son hates Amy trousers that aren’t super soft so I get him some of the soft skinny jeans that only seem to be in the girls section. So silly, why not just have kids clothes and let everyone choose their own style!

  10. I love this.
    I have two sons and one loves my little pony and barbies. He used to loooove the colour pink. Now that he goes to school, he’s decided he doesn’t like the colour pink. I asked him why and he told me it’s a girl colour… I told him no anyone can like whatever colour they like. He was adamant that it was a girl colour.
    Already no matter how hard I try at been gender neutral with his toys he’s already at 5 years old been influenced by society’s thoughts and generalisations.
    I’ll continue to let him play with whatever toys he likes. For now he wants to be a makeup artist when he grows up ?

    • Ellamental Mama

      June 9, 2016 at 4:04 pm Reply

      Arh that’s lovely, but also so sad that he’s already decided that it’s a girl colour. I think you did well getting him to five before he ‘learnt’ that though! It’s hard to protect them from all these influences when it’s literally everywhere!

  11. Great piece! It’s sad (and quite strange) that as a society we are just so uncomfortable with not knowing which genitals someone has – with babies, and also with transgender people. There is a transgender barrista at one of local cafes, who is obviously transitioning from male to female. I’ve lost count of the number of lunchtime conversations that have centred around her gender and how ‘convincing’ she is – justified by ‘but I don’t know what pronoun to use’. Wears pretty thin…

    • Thanks jenny, yes it is so sad, you’re right, I don’t think we’d be so obsessed with it if we didn’t treat people so differently because if it!

  12. I have a two year old son and a baby on the way. I can’t believe the number of times I’ve heard, “If it’s a boy, at least you can reuse all the clothes stuff.” I can (and will) reuse everything regardless. The baby is not going to care whether it’s in blue, green or little hearts (all of which will come from its older brother; my son loves hearts).

    My son has loooong eyelashes and used to get mistaken for a girl all the time, despite being mostly bald for the first year of his life. I didn’t always correct them, but he has a very masculine name, so they figured it out quickly. People were always so apologetic, and it always confused me, but then, seeing how a lot of people seem to think there’s something wrong with *not* gendering your child, they were probably expecting me to jump all over them. I read a comment online recently about how there was no reason to buy a different car seat for a second child, “unless it’s a different gender.” Car seats have to match their genitals now?

    • Oh my, the car seat comment – surely that’s not serious. Have to laugh at such things! And then people say it’s not all a marketing ploy for the companies to get even richer! Sounds like your son has fab dress sense though – my little one sported a lovely heart onesie when he was a baby – it’s soooo cute!!! Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂

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