Little gender benders: How children are smashing stereotypes

Delhi boy Aarnav Arora Singhal, 5, loves to wear dresses and organise princess parties with his female cousin.

“I buy most of his shoes and bags from the ‘girls’’ sections of department stores, because he loves the bright colours,” says his mother Madhu, 35, a marketing executive. “My husband and I would never try and discourage him from wearing what he likes, but people’s reactions amuse me. There was a time when he refused to cut his hair and even family members and teachers would call him a girl — derisively.”

Similarly, six-year-old Rehaan Iyer Agarwal from Mumbai has about a dozen dolls, including three Disney princesses and four Barbies, and loves turning his mother’s dupattas into ball gowns, stringing beads into accessories and making Playdoh dresses for his dolls.

Chandana Gupta, 6, daughter of Mohali-based paediatrician Dr Gaurav Gupta, meanwhile, insists that her parents buy her clothes from the boys’ section, and spends most of her playtime with her wide collection of remote-controlled cars.

Aarnav, Rehaan and Chandana are part of a growing number of juniors who are effortlessly blurring the lines between what little boys and little girls ‘ought to do’, with the full support of their parents.

Family counsellor and author Gouri Dange attributes the fluidity to the fact that gender roles are more fluid in the home. “The mother works outside the house; the father cooks. Children are picking up on the fact that their roles aren’t strictly demarcated,” she says. “Most children eventually grow out of it as self-realisation hits them with age and puberty.”

Developmental paediatrician Samir Dalwai adds that there is also healthy interaction between children of both genders as many more schools are now co-ed, and that’s leading to these crossover trends.

Many parents are finding, however, that the real issue is that their child’s social environment hasn’t evolved at the same pace. “Initially, it used to worry me when Re was mocked or ridiculed,” says Rehaan’s mother Lalita Iyer. “But now I know he can hold his own even in a class full of children raised on very strong gender stereotypes.”

In one of her blog posts, for instance, Lalita writes: ‘When Re likes someone enough to want to include him/her in his universe, the first thing he tells them is that he likes playing with dolls… he has realised that he would rather be choosy about his friends and that they should have full information when they choose to be friends with him…’

Aarnav’s mother Madhu adds that when he picked a Barbie at a toy shop, the shopkeeper kept insisting that he buy a more masculine toy “like a car or a gun”.

“These are the same people who will argue in drawing rooms that our boys are not raised to be caring and sensitive. If we raise them to equate manliness with weapons and vrooming automobiles, what else can we expect?” she adds.

Counsellors caution that there is something else to watch out for: Encouraging an atypical preference with such pride that the child feels they ought not to alter it. “The truth is, parents shouldn’t actively encourage anything,” says Dange. “As parents, your responsibility is to ensure that a good mix of activities is available, and let the child take it from there.”

One thing you should clearly not do, adds Aruna Broota, clinical psychologist and former professor in the department of psychology at the University of Delhi, is succumb to pressure and take the clips/stoles/dolls/cars away. “That could make the child either rebellious or self-conscious,” she says.