It can be a challenge raising a boy who is protected from the harmful effects of society's gender stereotypes.
Early exposure to narrow cultural messages of what it means to be a boy, a man, or masculine imprints on our tots. Of course, we try our best as parents to break down these gender biases, but what do we say when our friends or families blurt out some old relic like "boys don't cry," "pink is for girls," or "boys will be boys"?
Ouch. Things can get socially awkward if we don't handle the situation correctly.
So here are some tips to guide you through:
1. Know your motivation
Take a moment to ponder your motivation. Are you trying to put a relative you don't like in their place, and this is just another transgression you want to point out? Are you a protective mama who will attack anyone who tries to hurt their baby? Or, are you doing your part in helping to enlighten others and shift our cultural stereotypes of gender? Hopefully it's the latter.
Take a deep breath, and trust that your 24/7 parenting has more impact on your child's development than any one passing statement. While of course those comments aren't ideal, they don't fall in the category of "harming" your child. The motivation of the relative or friend, although naïve, was likely without malcontent.
So, know your child will be fine, and think of your intentions before deciding how to give a considered response instead of a knee-jerk reaction. This can be taken as a time to teach, rather than scold.
2. Build your courage with small social experiments
Not all parents react to gender normative language or stereotypes by speaking out. For many, it's more likely they will stand in stony disbelief, not knowing what to say, and so they say nothing at all.
Now, you may decide it's not worth the social strain and drop the topic all together. But, if you feel that not speaking up to others makes you feel resentful or powerless, I suggest you challenge yourself to find your voice by doing some small social experiments in speaking up.
Think of who you feel the most comfortable speaking up to and think of the comment you would be most willing to say that reaches slightly outside your comfort zone. Make your comment, and then, notice their reaction. The world didn't end. They didn't stop loving you. All that worry for nothing.
Build your courage over time with more demonstrative statements and to people you are more worried about offending. Soon you will find your voice for those harder conversations!
3. Prepare your reply in advance
Don't pressure yourself to come up with something eloquent to say on the fly. Do you think Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King Jr. didn't spend hours composing powerful prose? Having your lines in your back pocket for when you need to use them will give you confidence.
You can even vet them through some like-minded friends to quell any worry about how they sound.
4. Speak in a kind and digestible manner
Since the intention is to enlighten, not judge or shame others, make sure you communicate in a kind and understanding way that allows the other person to recover from their mistake, and be open to new thinking on an old paradigm. If they feel attacked they won't be open to change; they'll likely be more closed and guarded.
To help them hear and ingest your points, don't start a debate. Speak in your own voice but keep it short and sweet. Light-hearted to humorous will do the job. For example, you could say, "I just read this great research article online that says those types of gender comments are actually a big problem for boys learning to express their emotions. I was blown away! If you'd like, I can send it to you. I'm going to try my best to stop using that language now."
With that in mind, if you have a great one-liner you have been using with success, please share it in the comment field.
5. Remember, you're only responsible for your actions
We are all doing our part to push the needle towards a world that understands and nurtures boys rather than confining them to outdated gender norms and stereotypes. You're doing your part by speaking up respectfully.
You are not, however, responsible for what others do with this information. So, don't get discouraged. Measure your success by how well you found your voice and defended your beliefs, not by if you got grandpa to change his ways.
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