Bullying, teasing and the gender trap

—Emily W. Kane

With National Bullying Prevention Month underway and a focus this year on the sponsoring organization’s tagline, “The End of Bullying Begins with Me,” I find myself thinking back to what I heard from parents of three- to five-year-old children during interviews for my book, The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls.

I talked to parents from all social backgrounds and all family types, and found that quite a few wanted to give their kids the freedom to pick activities, toys, colors, and approaches that were not strictly determined by gender. But even those parents who wanted to encourage a moderately more fluid approach to gender, expressed fear and anxiety about how their children might be treated if they didn’t conform to typical gender expectations.

I heard reports of an everyday world teeming with social pressures, judgments from friends, relatives, their children’s peers and even strangers if their kids didn’t stick to a pretty narrowly gendered path. These parents were very much conscious of the social costs their children might face and, consistent with decades of scholarship in gender studies, these costs and anxieties loomed larger in relation to boys. With frequent mention of phrases liked “picked on” and “ostracized,” parents expressed the fear that their sons would be bullied by other children if they wandered even a little bit off that socially-dictated path.

The trap of parents pushing children toward traditionally-gendered outcomes is sometimes baited by beliefs about biology, personal preferences, and unconscious actions. Even when it isn’t, though, the everyday judgments of friends, relatives, and teachers can bait that same trap. Gender nonconformity is much too often met with bullying behavior, and if adults are not vigilant about responding to that bullying and responding to the more minor policing of gender expectations (which parents in my study labeled as teasing), many parents will enforce gendered constraints they don’t even agree with out of fear for what their children might face.

Individual parents can try to create a less constraining world for their children, but only if the rest of us suspend our judgments, applaud their efforts, and seek to interrupt the everyday teasing and more significant bullying that are too often ignored in children’s daily worlds. Suspending our judgments, offering that applause, and executing those interruptions are all ways that the end of bullying can indeed begin with each of us.

Emily W. Kane is a Professor of Sociology at Bates College and the author of The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls (NYU Press, 2012).