This morning during school drop off I overheard a short conversation between two parents about the younger sister of a girl in my son’s school, who was probably about four years old. She had fallen off her scooter and scraped her face, and someone was kindly inquiring about what had happened.
After explaining the event, the parent of the girl said, “She’s always battered and bruised!” which was responded to with:
“She must be the boy of the family!”
Then chuckles ensued before the two parents, and the little girl, parted ways.
Now let me first say that I know we can all say things just to make conversation and that a lot of times words can escape our lips before we think of the longterm effects they might have. I know it because it happens to me all the time. This was a quick comment made in passing… no harm done, right?
But as I walked home holding my six month old daughter in the baby carrier, wondering about her future as a woman in today’s world and considering how I wanted to encourage her to be whatever she wants to be in this life, I couldn’t get those words out of my mind.
Let’s just imagine for a minute.
Imagine you are a little girl overhearing a similar comment being made about you every week or two from age two to four years old, constantly comparing you to boys…
“What a tomboy!”
“Wow, she really likes boy stuff!”
“She’s definitely not a girly girl.”
“Yep, she’s playing with the boys again. She fits right in!”
“She just prefers the boy toys.”
“She’s really tough just like her brothers.”
“Don’t you want to play dress-up with some of the girls today? You played with the boys yesterday!”
“All her friends are boys, it’s like she’s one of them.”
“She’s over there in the sandbox with the boys. AGAIN.”
“What?! You don’t like dolls? I’ve never met a girl who didn’t like dolls!”
By the time you are five years old, no wonder you might be classified as a “tomboy” or – if you hated the comments and absolutely wanted them to stop – you may shun all “boy things” and make sure you are only doing “girl things” from here on out.
So what happens?
Doors are closed, opportunities are disregarded because you feel you have to fit into the mould society has classified as “girl.” Or you feel like you don’t fit in with other girls because you like “boy stuff.”
You ignore your inner compass which points you in the direction of what you truly love, and concentrate your time and energy on fitting in.
You are not free to be yourself. You have to stick to the realm of “girl.” Or you are stuck feeling like you will never be “girl” enough.
And that is why I hope as a society we decide to STOP saying phrases like this.
Phrases that make our girls think they are “like a boy” because they like to be active, to get messy, to experiment, to ask crazy (or what some might call “inappropriate”) questions, to be loud… to be themselves!
I do personally believe both nature and nurture come into play while shaping a person, but all kids are on a spectrum regardless of gender. Why do we have to put gendered labels on personality and preference? Why can’t we just be ourselves?
If a girl likes to ride her bike and often has scrapes and bruises, so what? She’s no less of a girl.
And if she prefers to play with dolls and dress up, she’s no more of a girl either.
Let’s respect our girls for who they are as individuals, and not confine them to stereotypes that have no place in a society that claims equality for all.
How can we encourage our daughters to pursue life on their own terms, if we keep boxing them into a set of stereotypes that cuts out half of their choices?
It’s not easy to stop saying phrases and making comparisons you’ve heard your whole life, but I’m going to try – for my daughter’s sake and for the sake of every other child out there who has the right to be whoever they want to be, regardless of if they are a girl or a boy. I hope you will, too.
What do you think? Are comments that tell girls they are “acting like boys” harmful? What are some other phrases we need to stop saying to let our girls be whoever they want to be?
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This is so true. I have two girls and I try hard not to stereotype boys and girls as I think it would put them at a huge disadvantage. There is actually a great youtube clip about ‘do you throw like a girl’?
Chelsea Lee Smith
Wow I just looked up that youtube video and totally cried! Seeing the young girls innocence to the phrase “like a girl” was so touching. Thanks for sharing. x
I agree completely! However. I have a 4.5 year old boy who is beginning to feel the sting of stereotype language. He loves fairies. And race cars. He wears dresses and rides an ATV. When he wears dresses, people often look over his head at me for answers. I usually suggest they ask him, and his answer is usually “I’m a boy but I just like to wear dresses!” I’m thankful that he feels comfortable enough with me and my husband to wear dresses but I certainly hope he never feels deterred from doing something he truly loves by the offhanded comments of a stranger.
Chelsea Lee Smith
How amazing it would be to grow up without limitations. I wish all the best to your son for a lifetime of courage and being true to himself! x
I love this post!
While we were attending a 3 year old girls birthday, My 18 month old daughter was off playing on her own. I was sitting near her and a couple of girls around 7 years old approached us.
They noticed my daughter was playing with a toy crane she had brought from home.
I was surprised when one girl commented that she may grow up as a tomboy and play soccer. Then another girl scoffed and stated that soccer was for boys.
I couldn’t believe what i was hearing from these little girls! 🙁
Chelsea Lee Smith
They learn it so young, don’t they? Children soak in so much, so it’s hard for them not to pick up on stereotypes from an early age because it’s everywhere from comments to TV to books etc. It’s really sad when the spheres are so ridiculously defined and girls feel confined to do just “girl” stuff!
I too am just in love with this post. I was that little girl who was labelled a ‘tomboy’ very early. I have 4 older sisters so you must imagine that my anti-Barbie attitude grabbed the attention of our friends and family. I heard the phrases noted in this article, most by an aunt….”why can’t she be like her sisters?” You nailed my response, for a very long time in my life I always felt like I didn’t fit with the ‘girls’. We moved quite a bit and I always found myself not evening trying to make friends with the girls because I was always told I’m not like them. Geeze, when I think about it, I didn’t even wear pink until the first year of college when my roommate dressed me up :S
So fast forward from that little girl who heard all too often how boyish she was…..I am still that same girl. I have bruises on me on any given day at 27, I play sports, hike, camp, do my own home renovations, etc.
To embrace this side of me would not have been possible without my mom encouraging me and having all of my sisters alongside her. I had a team of women who didn’t care that I bit my nails and that I usually came home covered in mud, they loved that about me.
I totally agree that we need to change the way society labels boy and girl activities, but we all know that is not going to happen overnight. In the meantime, embrace, love, encourage and call out the influential people who are unknowingly impacting your child’s perspective on who they are. Be the example for your child!
Absolutely love this post, I’ll be sharing it 🙂
Chelsea Lee Smith
Wow Carla I just LOVE your response and am so touched that my post resonated with you. I was not a “tomboy” myself but had several friends who really struggled with the silly rules of “this is for boys” and “this is for girls”. Doesn’t it just seem ridiculous to have to put us into spheres from such a young age?! I’m so glad you had a group of people to encourage you to be whoever you wanted to be, how many gifts you would have lost if you had ignored your own interests! I’m hoping to do the same for my daughter, whatever she ends up liking. x
I have 4 boys and 1 girl–and my aughter is right in the middle! I get so many comments about how she must be spoiled, and that she is the princess of the family, and how lucky I am to have gotten a girl. I feel like those comments are often more hurtful to my boys, by suggesting that I don’t appreciate them or that I treat them worse than their. I’ve tarted to just not say anything in response, and let the awkwardness stretch–and then people will realize what they’ve said and backpedal a bit. 🙂
Chelsea Lee Smith
It is really hard when people make comments about how lucky you are to have a girl after several boys, I can definitely relate! I had two sons and really, really wanted to have a daughter (of course I would have been happy either way)… and was open to talking about that with friends etc… but now that she’s here (or even when I was pregnant), I never want people to make those types of comments in front of my sons because it’s not a subject that would make sense to them at such a young age. I love all my kids equally and sure we may connect in different ways but that’s the same with any child/person regardless of gender. I always find it so awkward about how to respond – will try a silent approach next time 😉
I totally agree with the idea of children being free to be who they want without stereotypes and that constant comments like this may impact on a child like this negatively. However, as a girl who grew up as ‘the one who must be the boy’ of 4 sisters i can say that this impacted on me in the opposite way as it made me believe that i could do whatever i put my mind too (including all that boys could, as to me, everyone had always told me i was capable by saying i was a tomboy etc). As a result gender has never been a restriction to me! I believe that this is due to the fact that my parents always allowed/encouraged me to be who i wanted to be.
I would definitely encourage others to do the same. I know i will be encouraging my children to be whoever they want to be without the influences of stereotypes.
Chelsea Lee Smith
How interesting Brie! I’m glad it worked out positively for you 🙂 It says a lot that you felt you were never held back because you had “boy” qualities. Reminds me of the youtube video “like a girl” someone posted about above… it’s sad that “like a boy” would not mean anything negative whereas “like a girl” does. So I guess in theory being “like a boy” would be a compliment.
Kate - The Craft Train
It’s so easy to just let comments slip out without thinking about how they sound to the child listening beside you – what a good reminder to keep my big mouth shut! I would never purposely say something that would make my daughters feel stereotyped and put into categories but I’m sure it has happened on occasion unintentionally.
Very thoughtful article! It is so easy to box kids before they even know themselves what they really want to be! As you said, just simple, well intentioned comments and ‘conversation fillers’ can quickly become self fulfilling prophesies! Good reminder to be more conscious of our language!
its funny this just came up on my Pinterest. Just the other Sunday my daughter (3 years) was hanging from a railing at church. One lady said, “she must be a tomboy.” I looked at her and smiled and said “I thought she was just being a kid.” There is no reason that climbing, jumping and swinging need to e labeled as gender specific activities. Kids should be allowed to just be kids.