The Little Gender Detective and the Case of the Missing Policewoman / by Sabria McElroy

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While driving my daughter to preschool one day, she asked, “Are there girl police?”

My initial reaction: What!?  We had talked about female astronauts, doctors, and phenomenal athletes (we’re Serena fans). But I had neglected to discuss this more familiar, everyday example with her. What else was she confused about, I wondered.

Did she think that women couldn’t be construction workers because the workers we drove by every day were all men? Did she know that boys could be ballet dancers and men could be preschool teachers?

Somehow, she had missed the fundamental lesson that I had tried to convey by discussing inspiring female role models: gender does not limit what you can do or achieve.

After I recovered from my initial shock, I realized that her confusion was natural. During early childhood, many children experience a period of “gender rigidity,” during which they act in highly gender stereotypical ways, and they are very attuned to gender clues. Studies have referred to this as the “Pink, Frilly Dress,” or PFD phenomenon. During this period, children become increasingly aware of their own gender and turn into little gender detectives, seeking out information about that gender and about differences between genders.

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Up until the point when my daughter asked her question, she had only seen, or at least had only noticed, male police officers. So, being the little gender detective that she is, she categorized being a police officer as a “boy thing.”

The predominantly male make-up of the police force is not the only thing that could lead to some misconceptions about gender during this developmental stage. Children are exposed to gender clues that reinforce potentially harmful stereotypes daily. They are all over television. If you order a Happy Meal at McDonald’s, there’s a good chance that the cashier will ask whether the order is for a boy or a girl, so that the “right” toy can be placed in the box. Similarly, in many stores, toys for boys and girls are segregated by aisle. 

Kids also pick up conventional gender clues from educational settings. My daughter’s gymnastics summer camp had costume days every Friday with themes like mermaids and pirates and princesses and knights. My attempts to convince my daughter to be a pirate mermaid or a princess knight - like Nella! - were soundly rejected.

And, I’m sure my daughter’s preschool classroom was not the only one in which the boys gravitated towards Legos, while the girls were more inclined to color and play with the toy dolls and kitchen.  

A lot of parents think that none of this is a big deal. 

It’s true that most kids eventually grow out of it. However, the failure to engage with certain subjects during this critical learning period can prevent children from developing their full range of talents in the long term. Even after they stop dressing up as princesses, girls who spurned “boy” toys at age five (think Legos, construction sets, robots) may end up less interested in STEM subjects. 

One study found that boys' and girls’ math performance did not differ when they entered kindergarten, but boys had gained an advantage in math performance by the end of kindergarten that widened during subsequent grades.  

Early childhood interests and activities can also impact future confidence. Over time, girls may lose confidence in their ability to excel in subjects that they avoided at a younger age because they believed they were for boys. In their book The Confidence Code, Claire Shipman and Katty Kay discuss the “confidence gap” that develops between boys and girls beginning around age eight and continues to plague even highly credentialed, successful women.

Given all this, I do think that some of my daughter’s misconceptions about gender can be a big deal, and I do my best to try to correct them.

In the process of doing so, I’ve learned a couple of things. One, being too heavy-handed can backfire and result in my daughter becoming more deeply entrenched in her position. Two, conversations aren’t usually enough. I have to show her examples to counter whatever stereotype is at issue and let her come to her own conclusions.

Every kid is different, of course. Many, like my daughter, will identify strongly with their gender and experience an intense period of gender rigidity during early childhood. Some will not identify with their assigned gender at all. Whatever the case, I think the key is to approach parenting in a way that acknowledges and accepts your child’s identity, while also showing her that it is not a limitation on what she can do or achieve. 

Born to Be is part of my effort on that front. Our clothes showcase coding, sports, and other designs that you won’t typically find on girls’ clothing, but in traditional girl colors and styles. The message for little gender detectives: coding and sports are a girl thing.  

I’ve previously written about the reasons Born To Be is focused on girls. But I think it’s important to make similar efforts for boys. I also have a son, and I don’t want him to buy into gender stereotypes or think he should limit his interests because of his gender.

Right now, he’s only two, and he gets it. My daughter was recently invited to pretty in pink spa birthday party (yes, that’s a thing). When we arrived, the birthday fairies (also a thing) offered my son a knight costume. But he tossed it aside in favor of a lovely spring hat, which he wore while decorating a cupcake and enjoying some tea.

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I hope he always follows his heart and keeps an open mind! But if he turns into a little gender detective in the next year or so, I’ll be ready to expose him to plenty of clues that reinforce the diversity of both boys’ and girls’ interests and potential!

As for my daughter, she plans to be a policewoman this Halloween.