UPDATE: In response to public outrage, the parks and recreation department in Richmond Hill has changed the names of their summer camp programs. On Thursday, the department wrote on Twitter:
We have heard you and changed the names of our summer camp programs to Extreme Sports and Kidz Rock. They are open to all between ages 9-14.
— Richmond Hill (@myRichmondHill) March 31, 2016
It’s 2016, but according to the parks and recreation department in Richmond Hill, Ont., boys and girls should fit specific gender roles.
On Wednesday, a photo of Richmond Hill’s summer programs made the rounds on Twitter and revealed a striking difference.
The Boyz Rule Camp is all about extreme sports and encourages kids to get active with activities such as rollerblading, biking, swimming and playing ultimate Frisbee.
The Girlz Rock Camp, on the other hand, is all about “girl-friendly fun,” which means a week of scrapbooking, baking and getting manicures.
On social media, parents were quick to voice their disappointment and outrage over the gendered camp offerings.
— Chris (@carbonfixated) March 30, 2016
@myRichmondHill, what changes will you be making to your gender-biased boyz&girlz camps? All kids have right to explore all activities.
— Susie Berg (@SusieDBerg) March 30, 2016
If you send your daughters to this camp, I hope they use their kitchen time to burn the place down. https://t.co/5H5SQ6wJP7
— Serena Rivard (@boogiefrogs) March 30, 2016
@MyRichmondHill You canNOT be serious about the summer camp programming for girls and boys. Wake up - we are no longer in the Middle Ages
— Andrew Riddles (@alltheinterwebs) March 30, 2016
In particular, the gendered summer camps struck a chord with Ottawa mom Ariel Troster. On her blog Queer Femme Mama, the mom explained that the “worst part of all of this is how these camps are training young girls to be perfect housewives. In 2016.”
“You’ll notice that basic food preparation is not included in any of the listed activities for boys,” she said. “Because even today, boys are being socialized to be nurtured and served by women. It makes me want to projectile vomit all over the city recreation guide.”
Troster also noted that Richmond Hill wasn't the only place offering these gendered camps. Dovercourt Recreation Centre in Ottawa also offers similar programs where boys get involved with activities such as paintball, card tournaments and go-karting, while girls do yoga, make healthy snacks and create jewelry.
— ArielTroster (@ArielTroster) March 30, 2016
Following the public outrage, Richmond Hill responded via Twitter on Wednesday saying that they will review their summer camp offerings.
We are hearing you and will review these programs and content with input from participants and the community.
— Richmond Hill (@myRichmondHill) March 30, 2016
Similarly, Jeff Leiper, Ottawa city councillor for Kitchissippi Ward, responded to Troster via Twitter regarding Dovercourt’s camps.
— Jeff Leiper (@JLeiper) March 30, 2016
— Jeff Leiper (@JLeiper) March 30, 2016
Leiper is currently waiting for the city’s resolution.
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Try to focus less on gender differences in general, Brown said. One way is to remove gendered speech from your language as much as you can. Constantly referring to people by their sex or gender labels it to children as something that matters very much, she said, and therefore tells them that it's an important part of who they are -- perhaps more important than factors like their personality or strengths. “I try to just make it not something that really comes up much,” she advised.
“There's a lot of individual differences among children that don't follow gender lines,” Brown said. It's far more productive to focus on the things about our children that have nothing to do with sex or gender: their likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, and personality traits. “The reality is that gender is pretty irrelevant for predicting what kids are like,” she said. Moving away from a focus on what boys are like and what girls are like allows us to instead discover what is actually unique about our child.
“It's important to know the facts,” Brown said. “[Parents] should know that there's no differences whether they have boys or girls in terms of academic differences, personality, etc.” In fact, when studying infants and young children, the research shows very few inherent differences based on sex, she said. Boys tend to have a bit less inhibitory control at birth and girls tend to talk earlier, though this does even out as male and female children age. In general, Brown said, research tends to match what we know about development in general -- as in, differences that show up between boys and girls as they get older are related to how we treat male and female children differently, not due to any inherent differences between the sexes.
While studies show only slight differences based on sex, they do illustrate that a strong focus on gender norms can be harmful, Brown said. For girls, the negative effects can include poor body image due to the universal value placed on appearance, specifically, a very narrow definition of acceptable appearance for females. For example, Brown said, “By the time they're 12 years old more than 70 percent of girls aren't happy with how they look.” In addition, we've seen that girls stay away from careers in science and math (STEM careers) because they perceive themselves as weaker in those subjects, even when research shows that their actual abilities are the same as for boys.
But gender stereotypes can hurt boys too. “One of the most disturbing outcomes of stereotypes for boys is that we really tell boys that you shouldn't cry, and parents worry if they're son is very sensitive,” Brown said. Parents can focus too much on trying to avoid introversion and push assertiveness on boys who just don't fit that personality type. But studies don't show any differences between boys and girls tending towards being natural introverts, she said. At the same time as we could be preventing boys from expressing their feelings, we give them aggressive outlets like violent toys. “We shouldn't be surprised that boys grow up and don't know how to handle sadness and feelings well and show a lot more aggression,” she said.
Many new parents are surprised by how quickly the focus on gender begins. For example, have you ever tried to find a shirt with a cat on it for a boy? Somewhere along the line it was decided that pink is for girls and blue is for boys, and cats are for girls and dogs are for boys, and clothing and toys for even the youngest children often falls strictly on these arbitrary divisions. This can extend to our behaviour towards boy and girl children as well. Brown mentioned research that shows that people tend to read and speak more to female babies, using more complicated vocabulary, and other studies show that the number and quality of words young children hear can affect their educational success later.
Toys are not just fun for kids; they're also a learning tool. When selecting playthings for your child, break away from thinking in terms of gender or a particular section of the toy store. Instead, choose toys that foster traits you want to encourage in your children, or help them learn particular skills you value. Do you want your child to be nurturing and empathetic? Then provide baby dolls, for boys and girls. Lego and blocks help all children develop spatial skills, and ball play improves hand-eye coordination whether your child is male or female. “We want to make sure we teach the traits that are important,” Brown said, “not the toys that fit ‘their’ half of the toy store.”
Are you working on busting gender stereotypes in your own home only to feel undermined when grandma or grandpa says that dolls are only for little girls, or that all boys like to play rough? It can be tricky to get family members on board, but it's worth trying. This will ensure your children are hearing messages that matter to you and to make your family values clear. Brown said that a discussion can often avoid problems. Even if your parents or in-laws don't agree with your decision to keep your children from playing with guns or fashion dolls, they may still respect it. Barring that, she suggested, there's always the donation bin at your local thrift store. “I think it's alright to say ‘These are my kids, and I can decide what they have and how they dress,’” she said.
“Kids about three years old start to believe gender stereotypes,” Brown said. That's why it's important to consistently correct stereotypes about gender and sex when your child hears them or uses them, even if they seem harmless or silly. But it doesn't need to be a lecture or something that requires a deep discussion each time. For example, you can say things like, “Boys and girls both like to play with trucks. Your friend Jenny likes trucks a lot, doesn't she?” The key factor is making those corrections every time you hear a stereotype, Brown said, providing your children with the language they need to do it on their own when they're older and coming across stereotypes in the media or outside their homes.