Why the toxic nature of traditional gender roles need to stop

"What are little boys made of? Frogs and snails and puppy dogs' tails. What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and all things nice."

As a child I always felt a stab of annoyance at that rhyme. Why the hell do girls get to be made out of the good stuff? And, really, snails?

From the moment of birth, we are bombarded with an assault of complex messaging, starting with the way our parents treat us according to our sex.

Words matter

"Stop crying now. Who's a big strong boy?"

"Awwww, how pretty does my girl look in her pink dress!"

At the moment I am writing a book on how the rules policing men's behaviour – be strong, don't cry, don't show weakness or emotion, be brave, be a leader, be a ladies' man, be rich, be a man – has a direct link to the horrifying domestic violence statistics in Australia. More than one woman a week is murdered in a domestic situation. Consider that for a second.

As I've been researching the subject, I've become more and more horrified by the damage being forced to behave a certain way because of your sex is doing to both men and women, so much so that in middle age I've had to challenge a number of my own long-held beliefs on gender.

Roles most unworthy

A new study published in The Journal of Adolescent Health, shows unequivocally gender-specific roles and stereotypes create lasting damage into adulthood.

The study, of 450 children across five continents, with broad cultural differences, found learned, encouraged and enforced gender roles ultimately contributed to the wage gap, domestic violence, and mental health problems.

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This would be particularly relevant information to the increasingly disturbing, silly and nasty SSM debate, I would have thought.

Girls will be (tough) girls

In my own personal life, my brother and his family visited from New Zealand this week. My nine-year-old niece, a tiny pixie, is an extraordinary child. She has an intense strength of will, is aggressively competitive, and driven by a steely sense of fairness. She is locked in an eternal battle with her soft-eyed-and-hearted older brothers for, sometimes literally, her piece of the pie.

Even her body is more hard, lean and muscular than the boys. She's the tough nut in the crew.

The majority of characteristics she exhibits – strength, stoicism, leadership, competitiveness, aggression – are what boys are supposed to be. Yet she also has a butterfly hair-tie box.

One morning, for some reason discussing the odd name of my cat with her, I uncle-joked I considered naming the animal "Barry."

"That's a boy's name," I was told gravely.

"Well, actually boys and girls can be called whatever they want. It's not true some things are for boys and other things for girls," I said. "That's not fair."

Smashing more than glass ceilings

This was discussed at some length, including my right to wear what I wanted and just because I was a boy who says I can't wear a dress and call myself Sally? Why is it funny? Everyone should be able to do whatever they want, boy or girl, as long as no-one gets hurt.

This change in the rules of engagement was welcome news. She had long-suspected she had the short end of the stick, recently penning a thundering class-room speech entitled "Why It Sucks To Be A Little Sister".

We need to do our kids a favour and stop wrapping them in ribbons of pink and blue. While boys are busy being tough boys and girls being soft pretty girls, they are denied half a world of fun, personal satisfaction, opportunity, education, freedom, growth, money, career opportunity, relationships, support and safety.

Who would do that to their kid?

On a final note, I leave you with this little titbit of contrariness from Earnshaw's Infants' Department Catalogue, New York, June, 1918:

"The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl."

With more than 25 years in Australian media, Phil Barker has edited NW and Woman's Day magazines, and published such titles as Vogue, GQ, Delicious, InsideOut and Donna Hay. He is a consultant creative director and communications specialist, currently writing a book on "man stuff" for publisher New Holland. He is a regular commentator on the lives and style of Australian men.

Are you encouraging your kids to break free from stereotypes? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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