This year started out as a challenge for all my “gender talk.” Usually, I only recommend things to parents if (a) research backs it up, and (b) it seems feasible to do as a parent (and because I have tried it). Earlier this year, I was interviewed by Sharlene Johnson at Parents Magazine about how to promote mixed-gender friendships in your kids (excerpts and the link to the full article are below). I was very clear about how birthday parties should be as mixed-gender as possible. Yada yada yada. This has always been the case for my kids and it had always been a non-issue.
Then… my own daughter’s 10th birthday rolls around. I asked what she wanted to do for it and who she wanted to invite. Within seconds, she said GetAirLex, a trampoline park in our town. Then she paused about who to invite. She started naming a bunch of girls – pretty much all the girls in her class. I asked about the boys. She is friends with the boys and eats lunch with them every day, so it seemed weird to not invite them if she was already inviting ALL the girls. (Plus, I was being loud-mouthed about mixed-gender parties a month before.) It would be one thing if it was just a few of her closest girl friends. But it seemed very stereotypical to invite literally one-half of the class.
I was surprised when she told me why. She said that she was friends with a few of the boys. But, if she invited them to the party, then the girls would think she “like”-liked them. She was definitely not wanting to send that message. Jeesh, the rumors about who likes whom start so early. So, I suggested she just invite everyone in her class. This way, there was no exclusion based on gender, but she didn’t have to worry about what others thought. Plus, this party was at a trampoline park, something everyone would enjoy.
So she did, and it was great. Most of the girls, and most of the boys, came. They all had fun. Shockingly, they managed to play together as friends. I am sure it helped that dodgeball was involved.
I was struck by how easy it had been. First, find an activity that everyone would enjoy (this would have been harder if she wanted to go get manicures). Then, simply invite everyone. If the other gender doesn’t come, it doesn’t really matter. At least you made an attempt to actually treat your friends as your friends.
Reconsider the Party
When your child’s birthday rolls around, keep in mind that all-boy or all-girl celebrations can perpetuate the idea that it’s okay to exclude a whole group of people. “So much happens at school that’s out of your control, but you can guide who comes to birthday parties and who plays at your house,” says Christia Spears Brown, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington. Warm your child up to the idea of having a coed bash by brainstorming themes that aren’t gender-specific, like a bowling or circus-inspired event. Then suggest inviting friends of both sexes over to celebrate. If she’s hesitant, ask your child how she’d feel if her classmate Andrew had a party that she wasn’t invited to. Showing her the situation from an outsider’s perspective is likely just the nudge she needs to open the invite to everyone.
If your child is willing, schedule boy-girl playdates or encourage him to play with the girl next door. But to make the idea more appealing, you may need to suggest an activity they’d enjoy doing together, says Dr. Brown. Both sexes are likely to enjoy board games, forts, bubbles, modeling clay, sandboxes, building blocks, scooters and, well, far too many other things to list. Once your child has a few mixed-gender playdates under his belt, he’s more likely to engage with both sexes in the future — with or without your guidance.