Are you guilty of these parenting cliches?


Sarah Macdonald


Photo: James Di Lella

All parents are different but they do one thing the same. They vow to be different. To raise children in a new way unencumbered by a long rich history of gender stereotypes.

But soon enough it happens.

A mother coos ‘you’re so pretty’ to her baby daughter. Or tells her toddler ‘wait till your father gets home’! Or buys her son camouflage army pants. A father comes home and starts ‘fun time’, or tells his son not to cry when he’s hurt, or buys his daughter a nylon pink princess dress. 

Even the most stridently cautious unconsciously slip. Boy/girl stereotypes are absorbed in more ways than pink or blue clothes.


Here are five easy pitfalls for women and ways to beat them.

Becoming the default parent

This is the parent most loaded up with the emotional, physical and logistical needs of the children.  The parent who has met the teacher and knows where the favourite t-shirt is buried. The default parent is usually the mother and she can wear the mantle like a martyr’s crown of thorns.

Becoming the default is an easy pattern to fall into if you are the primary carer but it’s unhelpful for daughters to accept it as the norm. In slipping easily into the default position, a mother gradually takes on more and more, causing her partner to further retreat from frontline parenting. I know many ardent feminists who planned equal parenting and work full time only to realise they have fallen into this trap.  My advice is to take many weekends off and then never to leave a schedule and list of helpers.  Let the so-called ‘back up parent’ work it out himself or herself. They will struggle but become an empowered god of small things. All will survive.


Dad is fun, Mum is mean

If you let yourself become the default parent chances are you’ll also become the mean one. The one who snaps after receiving the daily download of injustice or cops the wailing about not wanting to go to sport. Even the Dalai Lama couldn’t be kind after battling to get children off screens and onto homework, off iPods and onto music practice or while battling peak hour traffic to pick up at basketball.  There comes a time in every woman’s life when she suddenly realises its rather frayed and full of ‘not’.   Then the other parent walks in, all sweetness and fun for a precious hour with his babies before bed. Just enough time to make jokes, throw the just fed high into the air, dislodge their dinner and rouse them into hysterics so they can’t sleep. Determined not to fall into this trap I avoided homework for years, my kids stopped learning their instrument and rarely did their dishwasher duty.  Yet still this week my son told me dad was still so much more fun than I was. Make your partner come in and do the chore war, the spelling words and serve the broccoli.

There is nothing like a break up to make men conform more to the stereotype of the ‘fun dad’.  Write avoidance of this trap into the settlement.  Or take revenge by becoming the fun one. Give them pizza for dinner every night and make dad’s night the one before the assignments are regularly due. 

Even better, lets unite to show kids that adulthood is not all dreary responsibility and drudgery.  Look like you are having fun or they'll never want to grow up.


 Say ‘wait till your father gets home’

When I was being a brat, my mum used to say ‘wait till your father gets home’ and we’d fall about laughing. We all knew he was as soft as butter and as sweet as honey and she was the hard arse. She did it because of point 2. She hated having to be the mean one.  But for many families mum is nice soft and sweet and dad is the disciplinarian looming with the threat and fury.  This authoritative stereotyping just as damaging. Parents need to share the discipline and be on the same page.


Find power in committees

I'm one of those people whose eyes begin to roll back in their head when people call a meeting. I then usually pass out before they call the minutes. I like to make sure I’m involved in the community by taking on roles but I am wary of those who seek more power on the P and C than in life.  While the work of these uber-organised dynamos is invaluable it’s another area of unpaid work for women.  Who would do it if we didn’t? Maybe more men? I see them infiltrating the scene.  Let’s let them.


Don’t concede defeat in ‘male subjects’

I am guilty of this one.  This week I couldn’t even do my son’s year 3 measurement homework.  I asked his friend rather than telling him his Dad would help.  Girls and boys have the same ability in maths but my generation learnt it was a boy brain skill and conceded the area.  Don’t give into this.  Also, don’t claim superiority in English, feelings and cooking.  Boast your superiority in non-female areas. I am the tech head for the house - I set up the computers, and TVs. Dad is best at baking the cakes and scones. I am best at eating them.


Don’t be the worrying one 

While Mark Latham feels only women who boast inner city postcodes are anxious, the truth is anxiety hasn’t erected a fence. We all worry about our children.  The important thing is not to show them.  New mothers get a honeymoon on this point because when you have made something inside you for 9 months you are a bit more anxious about it getting damaged.

I concede I am more likely than my partner to yell ‘be careful’ when my daughter is hanging from a tree 10 metres off the ground.  I can’t help it, it’s a reflex. So, in the interests of non-gender conformity I also yell it at my son when he is walking too fast and in danger of falling over.


Excusing behaviour on gender grounds

Clamp your hand tightly over your mouth the minute you hear these phrases erupt “oh they're just being boys” when boys are being violent and aggressive and “Oh girls can be so mean” when you see nastiness.  This not only excuses behaviour, it dismisses it as inherent. It’s not. My daughter is far more willing to whack than my son and she is not a hugger.  My son loves a cuddle and cries more than his sister. Most accepted differences between boy and girl infants are actually non-existent or tiny but we treat them as significant and so build up their differences. There is one accepted in the scientific literature. Baby boys actually cry more than baby girls and are more likely ‘shhhed’ and ignored when they do so. Some researchers feel this means they get less attention and so become less social.

The common wisdom is that boys are more physical. But experiments with crawling babies show boys and girls can crawl the same degree of incline but mothers vastly underestimate their daughter’s ability.  So we need to encourage girls to be physical.  And while you're there don’t concede sport as a dad thing.  I’ve restarted netball to show my daughter sport is important at every age.

Of course we don’t have total control in this area and the role of society is huge.  Children aged 3 have been found to pay more attention to stereotypes than adults. When my son began preschool he suddenly realised he had to be tougher and love guns.  My daughter only partially gave into the princess obsession by playing with the boy who liked to wear the nylon Sleeping Beauty dress while she dressed as the Prince.


Don’t go overboard in the dissing of the feminine

See what I did in the last sentence? That pride I had in my daughter not being Aurora.  We women running away from stereotypes do that. I was bragging about the fact my daughter won’t wear a dress at the Daily Life Christmas party when a bored colleague said that all her friends boast about their tom boy daughters.  Feminist mothers can over dismiss being feminine.


Acknowledge your biases

Don't assume you are above the clichés, the stereotypes and the inbuilt biases.  Social biases are universal. In her book Gender Neutral Parenting Paige, Lucas-Stannard says the reason stereotypes are so powerful because they are universal and unconscious. We can’t eliminate these biases only try and be aware of them and find ways to neutralizse them.

So, mothers, if you feel you are becoming what you never expected try a bit of irresponsible fun, learn to love maths and don't frown too much at the frills. 



  • Fantastic article, Sarah! Would love to see many more parents taking this sort of approach. Sounds like you're raising kids to have real choices in how they view themselves and interact with the world.

    Now I don't want to get all neggy, because I do see your point, but, I think we have different takes on what happened here:

    "I was bragging about the fact my daughter won’t wear a dress at the Daily Life Christmas party when a bored colleague said that all her friends boast that their tom boy daughters. Feminist mothers can over dismiss being feminine."

    I've also (sometimes) seen parents rather chuffed that their little boy likes to step outside of gender boundaries, playing with dolls or wearing the "pretty" clothes in the dress up box. Wasn't there an article on DL last year about a mother whose son chose to wear his hair long, and dye it pink? I think what the parents are boasting about here is not a rejection of the feminine per se, but their children's perceived originality or lack of conformity.

    For example, I have no problem with little girls in dresses. I remember loving dresses and those patent-leather shoes with frilly socks when I was that age. If I had a daughter, I'm sure I'd also enjoy watching her get excited about a party dress. But I would be horrified if she was one of those little girls who insists on wearing one of those pink nylon Princess outfits every day. That isn't femininity, it's Disneyfication. It's not creative dressing up, it's aping a stereotype. So I think it's reasonable to be proud that your daughter didn't want to be Aurora - not because she's feminine, but because she's boring, sexualised and corporatised. Worst, she's unoriginal, and unimaginative.

    Red Pony
    Date and time
    November 27, 2014, 9:30AM
    • If you are the default parent, who cares as long as it works for you. There seems to be so much judging about how women parent. Part of feminism is being able to accept each woman is different, and if she chooses to be a default, stereotypical or cliche (whatever adjective you prefer), then that is ok - as long as it is her choice. If she wants to give the maths homework to the Dad so be it. I love math, but have plenty of friends that hate it. This is regardless of gender. If a dad wants to give the English homework to the mum, so be it if she likes English. People are all different. Provided she chooses and is comfortable with where things are, then who cares if this is seen as a "stereotype", "default" etc. Of course, if there is a lack of choice or comfort, then things need to change.

      Stereotypes can be fine if by choice and with comfort
      Date and time
      November 27, 2014, 9:33AM
      • I think you've missed the point. The idea of this article is to teach your kids that both mum and dad can be good at different things rather than simply tow gender lines because it's easier. Obviously, leaving things as they are IS easier - otherwise patriarchy would have folded years ago. Getting political for a moment, imagine in her recent puff piece Julie Bishop had said "You know what. It actually does annoy men that Abbott only has me as the woman 'of merit' in cabinet when so many of the blokes in cabinet are fools". Imagine the hubbub! So, of course, it's easier to pretend that merit got imbeciles like Eric Abetz and Barnaby Joyce in cabinet rather than it was their reward for supporting Abbott against Turnbull in their long-forgetten leadership stoush.

        Anyway, back to the point. If you, as a mother, are no good at maths - learn it. Not just for your kids, but for yourself. I have female friends who have left all financial matters to their partner because "they don't get figures" then have been left financially vulnerable when separated/divorced. As you yourself have said, we do things for comfort rather than betterment which means you don't grow, change or set strong examples for your kids. Give it a whirl, I say! Failing while trying is another great real-life example for kids to see.

        Date and time
        November 27, 2014, 12:19PM
    • The advice is generally pretty balanced apart from the Dad is fun, mum is mean section. It obviously depends on individual circumstances, but if you are a stay at home parent and your partner is working or if you are working shorter hours it's not really fair to expect them to not see their kids for five days of the week (or more) except for doing the unpleasant stuff with them like serving broccoli and doing homework whilst you get a mix of fun and work throughout the day. I agree they shouldn't come home and get the kids all hyped up before trying to get them to go to bed, but having them only do the stuff that kids don't enjoy during the hour or two they get to spend with them isn't fair either.

      There should be a balance for both parents between spending time with kids doing fun stuff and stuff the kids don't enjoy but is necessary, as well as the rest of the housework.

      Date and time
      November 27, 2014, 10:53AM
      • one other cliché is not wanting to be something (eg the mean parent) but then not allowing the other parent to do things their way. So when you decide 'dads turn for dinner' and dad cooks sausages and lets the kids read at the table, that's part of the deal - you don't get to tell the other parent how to behave when the other parent doesn't do things your way. Relax, go with the flow

        (vice versa of course - not saying this is purely a female thing)

        Date and time
        November 27, 2014, 11:37AM
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