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How parents unwittingly fall into 'The Gender Trap' when raising children

Cover of the book
Cover of the book "The Gender Trap."

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At baby showers all over America, it's almost always the same: blue for boys, pink for girls. But what if a choice as simple as baby clothes can lead to gender inequality in adults?

We talk with Dr. Emily Kane, a professor of sociology and author of "The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls."

Interview Highlights:

What's wrong with pink for girls and blue for boys?
"I think in some ways it seems like just a trivial, harmless thing, but in fact it ends up being the first step in a process that really ends up constraining kids and constraining all of us in the long run.

How can these gendered colors constrain our kids?
Let me start with the idea that what animated my interest in doing this project was an interest in the gender inequalities that persist in the adult world that I think a lot of us are familiar with. The wage gap that tends to return greater earnings to men than women, the occupational segregation that makes it difficult to pursue a wide range of career options, and a whole lot of other intersecting inequalities. I was interested in trying to think about the ways those trace back in some ways to really minor-seeming things earlier in life."

How can you make that correlation between infancy to adulthood?
"I Interviewed parents from a wide variety of backgrounds about how they think about their children's gender, and one of the things that was striking me was the ways in which most people were, at least to some extent, reinforcing traditional patterns like preparing their girls more for the sort of nurturance we associate with parenting, and preparing their boys more for the kind of competition we might associate with the work place of politics or the public sphere, in effect. I think in some ways even those early decisions on whether you're going to encourage your daughter to hold a doll and nurture it, whether your'e going to encourage your son to be competitive in sports, to be more independent, to be outside with a wider range of activity can end up reinforcing paths that lead women to have more obligations for family care, for example, and I should say in some ways really constrain boys and men too."

Do most parents do this on purpose?
"I think they fall into these traps without even knowing they're doing it. What I was so struck by was that often parents were trying to lead their kids someplace very different, very much more open and full of possibilities but along the way a variety of different things would in effect trip them up and they'd find themselves back in that trap. Sometimes because they assumed it was inevitable, sometimes because they assumed it was natural, but also sometimes because the small decisions didn't feel like they were going to have any long term consequences."

What are some main gender traps that parents fall into?
"One of the traps I focus on in the book is assuming all these gendered outcomes in childhood, the different attributes we notice for boys and girls are fixed in nature. If you look at them that way, its pretty likely that you're not going to feel even possibly like you could resist them nor maybe even like you should. But I think another trap is some of the unconscious actions that research has documented but most parents probably don't know about. Some of the ways that we are more soft and quiet in talking with girls than with boys, some of the ways we're inclined to give boys a greater range of motion."

How has this been shown in a scientific setting?
"A really interesting experimental study I read had parents in a laboratory setting with toddlers and gave them an incline to set and they were asked to set it at a level that would be challenging. Parents set it higher for toddler boys than toddler girls even though there were no physical differences between those children, so sometimes it's unconscious. But I also think that sometimes it's that giving in, that sense of inevitability, the feeling that you can't push back against what a child's peers are encouraging. That will sometimes trap people as well.

How do outside judgments affect how parents treat their children?
"The thing I got most interested in as I got deeper into the research was how many people felt trapped by the judgments and the responses from other people around them. So they might want…to allow those things, but they're worried about how other kids, other parents and society in general might respond to their kids if they let that happen."

Does parental desire for a son or daughter have an effect on reinforcing gender norms?
"What was striking to me was how deeply traditional their reasons for those preferences were and what I mean by that was, for example, a lot of people talked about wanting a daughter because the activities they enjoy that only a daughter would enjoy as well, or activities that only a son would enjoy as well. So simple as it seems, if I were to say to you, 'I'd really like to have a daughter because I like to go shopping and I want someone to go shopping with me,' and a surprising number of mothers actually said that, then I'm already constructing the assumption that boys don't like to shop and girls do and I think that phenomenon, which I write about as gendered anticipation, has some real impact on the other side."

How important are gendered toys in reinforcing these ideas?
"I think that gender marking in toys is still very much with us, and in some ways I think it is even more with us than it once was. In my opinion, as a sociologist, that marking is part of what constructs these categories that seem so different. We begin to feel, because we engage in this social practice, of using different colors giving different toys to boys and girls, it just reaffirms our sense that they're deeply different but maybe, partly, they seem so different because we're giving them different things. As we engage in that process, we're constructing these categories of boys and girls and kind of convincing ourselves that it's inevitable."

What do you hope this book will help parents learn?
"One of my hopes with this book is that if parents and educators and people who are concerned about children read it or think about the issues, that we may realize there are more of us who want to see some kind of relaxing of those constraints that we might otherwise realize, so in that sense it would't be so hard to swim up stream."

What would you say is a good gender-neutral baby shower gift?
"I always try to bring things that are neutral colors. I don't judge other people's desire to use pink and blue I would just love to see us all shake it up more often so that when pink and blue come along, that's fine, because its just part of a wide range of possibilities for what one might bring. So I always when it comes to babies try to bring neutral colors and toys and objects I think would be interesting to any small human being."