Irina Ryabkova: ‘The stereotypes of ‘boys who don’t cry’ lead to emotional problems’

A psychologist, expert of Moscow State University of Psychology and Education about stereotypes about children’s education

Defender of the Fatherland Day like International Women’s Day turned into the “male holidays” a long time ago in our country. It might seem the times when the women were told their place was in the kitchen and the men were ashamed to care about themselves are a thing of the past. But some gender stereotypes still thrive, and many bring their children up according to them. One can often hear: “Don’t cry, you’re a boy” or “Girls don’t behave this way.” In a column for Realnoe Vremya, Candidate for Psychological Sciences, Docent of the Department Pre-School Pedagogy and Psychology of Moscow State University of Psychology and Education Irina Ryabkova tells us what mistakes parents make in this case.

You remember your parents or some of your acquaintances’ parents exclaiming in a certain situation when you were a child: “You are a girl!” or instructively stated “Boys never cry!”

The stereotypes and ideas of how boys and girls should behave and what emotional reactions they should have pass from generation to generation. These stereotypes create some expectations, therefore a girl preferring cars to dolls, for instance, at times causes slight misunderstanding and sometimes others’ desire to teach her to “typical”, “girl” games.

Is this good? Should we scold children if it seems to us they enjoy “boy” games or become sad “like a girl”?

Where do stereotypes come from?

We anyway live in society and face different expectations and stereotypes. Sometimes we don’t realise how early they start to form. So gender stereotypes are created at birth: a baby turns out in a room with mainly rosy or sky blue colours, girls are bought stuffed toys, boys are bought cars, even communication with different-sex children is different.

Stereotypes and society

Different cultures have their own ways of expressing feelings related to the acceptability of different emotions: there are tabooed worries, while there are encouraged, “correct” and “wrong” feelings. So the fear, including children’s fear will be reproached by all means in a culture that develops in tough conditions: one cannot fear when it is necessary to overcome hardships because the fear is paralysing. Female jealousness and especially its expression will unlikely be welcomed in a culture where polygamy is accepted. Anger will be encouraged in a situation of aggression, for instance, a war, but it will be tabooed in those societies where mutual support, assistance, involvement are important.

“Wrong” feelings?

As we have already noted, society dictates not only norms of communication and behaviour for boys and girls but also the feelings different-sex children “should” have. However, such a tendency can hardly be called positive.

Emotions aren’t a disease and relic but a wonderful mechanism that appeared during evolution and allows us to orient better in different situations.

Emotions reflect some event’s importance for a person. For instance, a surprise shows that we have faced something new, unusual, unexpected, it makes us take a closer look and listen, pay special attention to something. Sympathy demonstrated desirable, important things for us, help us to get closer to another person. Anger says that some of our needs haven’t been met or that we have come across an obstacle when meeting this need; it empowers us and encourages us to look for ways to cope with them.

Taboos and encouragement

Encouraging or prohibiting feelings, the family and society facilitate the formation of a child’s character. However, it is necessary to remember that the prohibited won’t disappear anywhere, while the encouraged easily becomes not sincere, unnatural. For instance, if children are prohibited to feel anger, it will be expressed in intrigues, gossip and other similar ways. If a child’s interest, curiosity about some themes is prohibited, this interest starts to be hidden, gets an internal “secret life,” while externally the person becomes spiritless, boring.

Excessive encouragement of generosity, insistent requirements to share something with others don’t make a person generous but lead to slight offence, which isn’t always realised: “I do so much for them, while they are ungrateful!”

Are emotional stereotypes good?

Any emotional stereotypes like “Boys don’t cry” or “Girls don’t play war” can lead to emotional problems. For a child’s health and psychological well-being, emotional education should include differentiation, acceptance of feelings and search for cultural ways of their expression.

The expert recommends:

  • It is necessary to accept a child’s emotions in relations with him or her, not to reproach and ban them but teach a child to recognise them: “You are sad because you fell ill and feels bad,” “Are you angry because the girl has taken the doll away?” and so on. Remember that naming and spelling clear the situation out and help the child to understand, know himself or herself better and rest on his or her needs, not others’ needs.
  • If a child doesn’t show a socially accepted (or expected) attitude to something, he or she shouldn’t be told off or criticised. The motivation should change — this attitude is often more meaningful than it might seem at first sight.
  • Instead of encouraging a child to hide his or her feelings or demonstrate socially desirable feelings, it is necessary to teach them to make them look good and look for socially accepted ways of meeting their needs. Show yourself that instead of telling off one’s irritation can be expressed this way: “I am displeased that the toys are scattered, could you clean them up?” Such a feeling won’t make the child an obedient person who is ready to satisfy any request but will provide an atmosphere of respect and good will it is pleasant to live in.
  • An adult is an example and the one who shows any experience for the child. It is important to know how to differentiate your emotions (differentiate between guilt and shame, anger and disgust, nervousness because of fear and so on). Such differentiation helps one to look at one’s own feelings, notice the needs behind them, look for ways to meet them.
  • It is also important to know how to distinguish your emotions from others’ emotions. People are prone to attribute their states to other people, including children, which often causes conflicts.

Irina Ryabkova

The author’s opinion does not necessarily coincide with the position of Realnoe Vremya’s editorial board.