While I usually write about practical ways parents can play with their children, I think it’s just as important to write about how parents can influence and redirect playfulness. Refusing to conform to traditional gender roles while their children play with friends and peers, is one way in which parents can help.

Some background story

A few weeks ago, I took my niece to a 5-year-old’s birthday party. The party had girls and boys playing and running around. When it was time to sit for an activity, the normal developmental thing happened where girls naturally grouped with other girls. So did boys.

Yet, there was one girl among the ¨boy group.¨ She was having a blast, laughing and joking with the boys. Until the leader of the activity had her switch to the ¨girls table.¨ Her eyes implied, ¨but, I’m having a good time.¨ Instead, she uttered the words that all girls are coerced to say nicely: ¨ok.¨

I felt outraged. My heart sank for this girl who just wanted to play. She just wanted to have a good time. She wasn’t seeing gender or traditional gender roles – she was just having fun. The sad part is, no one other than me saw this as worrisome.

And this is when the story gets worse.

I shared my observations with a mother. I told her what I had seen and expressed my feelings of helplessness and frustration at this total lack of self-awareness. And what she answered, completely threw me off base. Her answer was ¨oh, you’ll get used to it.¨

Where to go from here? For starters, self-awareness.

My eyes widened as big as the shock emoji. I couldn’t believe a mother – of a girl – I might add, answered that way. Where’s the hope? Where’s the upstanding parent a child needs? Should I just take that as the norm? Should I just get used to the fact that someone – regardless if it’s a girl or a boy – cannot defy gender roles? Sorry, but I’m not sorry that I refuse to accept that. Our children need better than this.

I’m a firm believer that parents do the best job that they can. If they are not doing a better job, is because they don’t know how. But, self-awareness is a key component to great parenting. Self-awareness of those aspects that bother you about society, and trying – with all of your efforts – not to replicate those messages with your children. Equally important, not to allow your child to conform to those messages from society, either.

Get rid of your preconceived notions about play standards and embrace it for what it is

Play doesn’t know of gender. It doesn’t matter if boys want to play with dolls, or girls want to play soccer. (The US Women’s Soccer team might have a thing or two to add to the latter). What matters is your child’s emotional health. What strikes a chord with your child’s sense of happiness and belonging.

It’s been stated over and over again how playing is crucial for healthy child development. Nowhere does it talk about who your children are playing with, or which toys – as long as they are playing. Then why do parents (and evidently, other adults) stress so much about who they sit or don’t sit with while they play? Don’t we see that we are the ones reinforcing traditional gender roles? We are the ones responsible for perpetuating these out-dated and unhealthy views about playing.

Play is meant to be fun, entertaining, liberating and educational. Children who exercise their right to play should have the freedom to allow their imagination to roam free – regardless of what toy they use, or who they’re playing with.

If your children are engaging in a socio-emotionally healthy playing pattern, in which they activate their imagination and showcase their inner world – the tools to get there are irrelevant.

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