How I avoid the gender language trap

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A recent conversation with my children went as follows:

“Hey look, Manny! There’s a plane taking off over there, can you see it? Check that tractor – see the digger it’s pulling? Look at the size of those wheels!”

“Effie, look! That sheep has two wee lambs, aren’t they cute? See that horse, it’s wearing a jacket. Do you think it’s to stop it getting cold and wet?”

A week with the family in beautiful Dumfries and Galloway led me to a disappointing realisation: despite my best efforts as a feminist and a mother to refrain from pushing any kind of stereotype on my children, I was doing it anyway; in dozens of seemingly innocuous phrases and comments, set to the endless pounding of ‘Now That’s What I Call Music 90’ (don’t ask).

Particularly after the birth of my second child, a daughter, I became increasingly interested in the marketing of toys to children by gender,that works to the detriment of both boys and girls.

I’ve followed the excellent ‘Let Toys Be Toys’ campaign; railed at pink Disney Princess vacuum cleaners and make-up sets for young girls, and guns and monsters for boys. I’ve corrected my kids on their comments when they’ve said ‘that’s for boys’; ‘pink is for girls’, telling them that toys are for whoever wants to play with them and pink is a colour anyone can enjoy.

I’m hip to it. Enlightened, you see. A positive influence on my young ‘uns against the marketing that would tell them what to like and who to be from the day they draw breath. And then I heard myself in the car, pointing things out to my kids that I thought would interest them: tactors and machines to Manny; animals to Effie.

A few years ago I dealt with a period of anxiety using techniques based on Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. My self-taught understanding of such techniques was to change the language I used with myself to change my state of mind from negative to positive; from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can’. It really worked for me. I was amazed by the power of language to influence my thinking.

This gave me a lightbulb moment. Every time I pointed something out to Manny or Effie I was telling them what I thought they should like, unconsciously pushing the stereotypes that I was trying hard to avoid.

And my own personal experience told me that language can be seriously effective in influencing how we think. So we still point things of interest out to the kids but never specify who should be looking. As for the music? Well. Sia is growing on me. And that Ed Sheeran one’s not bad.

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Guinni Baker
Guinni Baker is a mother of two and a teacher in a Scottish secondary school