British Columbia·Point of View

Beyond Pink and Blue: How crossing the gender line in friendship can benefit kids

Some say cats and dogs can never be friends — and neither can men and women. But does the gender divide have to come between childhood pals?

How can parents make sure their kids are open to friends of a different gender?

Kids may naturally gravitate towards their own gender — so parents need to encourage them to embrace all kinds of friends. (CBC)

This story is part of Amy Bell's Parental Guidance column, which airs on CBC Radio One's The Early Edition.

While many of us can count our closest friends as people who identifying as a different gender than ours, it does seem to be less common when you look out at the school playground.

So why does the gender divide seem so pronounced when it comes to childhood friends? We can partially thank our basic genetics for that.

I spoke with Simon Fraser University associate professor of psychology Tanya Broesch — who specializes in child development — and she explained how even the smallest humans prefer hanging out with people who look, sound and think just like them as a way to make sense of the world and themselves. 

"Children show this 'like me' preference," says Broesch. "They show it for ethnicity, they show it for native language and they also show it for gender."

Parents enforce gender stereotypes 

But it's not just our kids who are to blame; regardless of our intentions, parents are still pretty good at enforcing gender stereotypes. Things like asking kids if someone is their "boyfriend" or girlfriend" rather than just a person who happens to be a friend.  I spoke with 12-year-old Aneko Gray — who counts all genders among her friends — and she mentioned that when she was young, she didn't even know that was a possibility! 

"I remember when I was in kindergarten I thought that girls could only hang out with girls." says Gray.

Parents need to encourage their kids to have friends across the spectrum — and the earlier they can start the better. By having these relationships  before sex or attraction enters the picture, kids get a clearer sense of how to connect to people — regardless of their gender.  

That means moving forward into adulthood, they have plenty of practice in platonic friendships and how to relate and bond with the people they want in their lives — not just the ones of a certain gender.  

Sonja Latifpour is a mom, social worker and child psychotherapist.  She says these cross-gender friendships can help with personal and professional relationships well past childhood. 

"It's just this amazing opportunity to see how do you relate to that gender?" says Latifpour. "The more we let our children live outside of these gender norms, the richer the lives of our children are."

Why make it pink and blue? 

Of course, once your kids get older, hormones and attraction can play more of a role in relationships. So, it's best to lay that groundwork early. If you have an open and ongoing conversation about sexuality and gender with your kids while they are young, that openness will help to set some rules when it comes to who can spend the night or hang out behind closed doors.

A lot of the gender biases are passed on from parents. We are the ones that concoct elaborate gender reveals and jokingly plan their weddings when they hold hands with someone in preschool.

So if we spend less time focusing on certain body parts, and accept a person as an entire being — it will make our friendships and relationships with anyone stronger.  Especially the ones we have with our kids.  

And since very few things in this world are black and white, they certainly shouldn't be pink and blue. 



Amy Bell is a digital contributor to CBC. She can be heard weekdays on The Early Edition as the traffic and weather reporter and parenting columnist.


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