Q: Every Halloween, as a parent, I find myself frustrated comparing ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ costumes at the store. Those denoted for girls seem to take whatever it is—from a doctor to a dinosaur—and make it ‘pretty’ or sparkly or add a skirt. Boys’ costumes feel skewed toward scary or violent characters. I feel like we’re teaching girls that no matter what they want to be, they need to first and foremost make sure that they’re pretty and boys need to be tough. And of course, it only gets more blatant when you get into adult female costumes. I don’t want to discourage my kids from liking certain costumes, but at the same time, how do I teach them about sexist stereotypes at such a young age?
A: As a mom of two daughters myself, I feel this frustration. When my now-7-year-old was only 2, she wanted to go trick-or-treating as a slice of pizza. I managed to construct a pretty believable pizza slice by cutting a yoga mat into a wearable triangle and adding some felt circles that resembled sauce and pepperoni. She was adorable. A hundred mom points for me.
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The next year, and every year since, it’s been a princess-palooza up in here. There’s no other option she or her younger sister will even consider. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course—I get the allure of a big frilly dress and a tiara. But I also hope she doesn’t feel like her only or best option is to be pretty.
Even though we may be making slow and steady strides to degenderize clothing for kids (boys can wear pink! Girls can like dinosaur t-shirts!), Halloween is still staunchly gendered. Walk into any costume store and this is apparent, like you said. Boy costumes are on one side and often reinforce masculine stereotypes—those that elude to power and intimidation like The Hulk, a velociraptor, a video game soldier. The girl side gives options like princesses, fairies, cheerleaders and—to check off the profession box—a firefighter who wears a skirt (very convenient for fighting fires).
We don’t want to take the fun out of the holiday or prevent kids from doing what feels natural to them, but ignoring gender stereotypes can add to a bigger issue down the road—a culture that sends certain, and not often healthy, messages to kids starting at a very young age.
And that brings us to your question of sexism and gender bias. These may seem like big topics for littles to grasp, but it’s really not, and it’s an important talk to have. Every day, kids are being sent messages about who they should be based on their sex. But, hopefully, we’re making progress debunking some of these stereotypes, like boys don’t need to be tough all the time; in fact, we know that encouraging boys to show emotion and connect with a more sensitive side of their personalities can prevent them from choosing violence later in life (see “Why We Need to Let Boys Cry”). And we know teaching both girls and boys about sexism and misogyny can be key to reducing domestic violence as adults. We also know how harmful stereotypes can be to nonbinary kids and adults, those who don’t identify as their assigned birth gender. Trying to fit kids into a certain box, including when it comes to something typically fun like Halloween costumes, can leave some feeling confused, isolated and depressed.
Author Laura Bates, who talked to DomesticShelters.org about her kid- and teen-friendly book Girl Up, says teaching kids about sexism “doesn't have to mean sitting your children down and giving them a massive lecture ... It's probably more effective to point out the little things when they crop up—airbrushed adverts, sexist stereotypes, gendered clothing—and by doing that, you give your children the tools to start to recognize these things in the world around them and challenge them, rather than accepting them as simply normal.”
As you peruse Halloween costumes with your kids in the store or online, start a dialogue. Ask questions like:
Do you think only boys/girls should be able to wear that costume? Why?
What messages do you think that costume sends?
Do you want to look in the other section, too?
Would you rather make your own costume?
Do you feel like you need to dress the same as other kids? Why?
Would you like to go as a slice of pizza?
OK, maybe not that last one. But it doesn’t hurt to ask.
As you talk with your kids, notice any stereotypes that are pervasive in your own thoughts. Does it make you uncomfortable when you consider allowing your child to wear a costume that’s been assigned for the opposite gender? Why? Do you worry about them getting teased or do you worry about your parenting being called into question? Are you reinforcing gender stereotypes without even realizing it? Leading through example is one of the best ways to teach kids about overcoming gendering—if you’re not concerned with how other people perceive your gender, your children will pick up on that.
This page on gooddayswithkids.com about gender identity also has a lot of good ideas for responding to kids about their gender identity questions, and here are 11 children’s books that can help kids understand sexism.
8 Gender-Neutral Costume Ideas
These have nothing to do with gender roles, in case you need some alternatives.
- Jetpack (it’s inflatable!)
- Space Jam
- Baby shark (do-do-do-do-di-do)
- Your kid’s favorite snack (bowl of cereal or box of donuts perhaps?)
- Family-themed movie costume (like Wizard of Oz — we love the tornado!)
- Your kid 90+ years from now
- Poop Emoji (find me one kid who doesn’t think poop is the funniest thing in the world)
Also, grown-ups, you might want to make sure you’re not reinforcing themes of violence or control through your costumes. JoinOneLove.org found six costumes to avoid perpetuating unhealthy relationship behaviors. Maybe go for this alien and UFO get-up instead.
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