Today, it is commonplace for parents to pledge that they will not, under any circumstances, gender stereotype their children. Indeed, when it comes to gender stereotypes, raising children in 2009 seems worlds apart than when we were growing up. Back then, competitive sports leagues for girls were just gaining momentum. There was no WNBA or professional women's soccer to which girls could aspire. Most team sports were still primarily the province of boys and men. Likewise, boys were not typically encouraged to pursue, for example, dance or ice-skating - generally seen as more feminine in nature. Times have certainly changed. But gender stereotyping, despite our best intentions, still exists and continues to impact what types of physical activities our sons and daughters engage in. How can we go from simply pledging that we won't gender stereotype to actually raising our children in a way that does not reinforce gender stereotypes?
First, we need to recognize that physical activity is important for everyone -- girls and boys. Research has found that quality physical education programs in schools improve test scores and academic performance for all children. And interestingly, a study in the February 2008 issue of the American Journal of Public Health showed that elementary school girls who took between 70-300 minutes of physical education per week enjoyed a significant boost in their math and reading skills. Just one hour/day can make a difference.
Second, we need to understand that while research shows that there are physical differences between boys and girls in terms rates of physical growth and development, those differences do not dictate whether a child will be the next Joe Montana or Serena Williams. What matters is that children are exposed to physical activity that is age-appropriate. The United States Department of Health and Human Services has established the following guidelines:
1. Toddlers should accumulate at least 30 minutes daily of structured physical activity; preschoolers at least 60 minutes.
2. Toddlers and preschoolers should engage in at least 60 minutes and up to several hours per day of daily, unstructured physical activity and should not be sedentary for more than 60 minutes at a time except when sleeping.
3. Toddlers should develop movement skills that are building blocks for more complex movement tasks; preschoolers should develop competence in movement skills that are building blocks for more complex movement tasks.
4. Toddlers and preschoolers should have indoor and outdoor areas that meet or exceed recommended safety standards for performing large muscle activities.
5. Individuals responsible for the well being of toddlers and preschoolers should be aware of the importance of physical activity and facilitate the child's movement skills.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, we must create an environment in which our children feel comfortable doing what they enjoy regardless of whether it fits a stereotype of what boys or girls should do. Here are a few tips for creating that environment:
It all boils down to being a good role model. Do you wrestle more with your son and draw quietly with your daughter? Try to mix it up a bit. You just might be surprised at the results.
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