How To Handle The Tomboy Stereotype

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Every now and then – generally when I feel like my parenting game is strong – my daughter will ask me a question that throws me for a loop.

It usually revolves around something that’s an issue or idea that most people are passionate about. It ranges from topics on religion, LGBTQ issues, politics (believe it or not), weather and socioeconomic differences.

  1. Can girls marry each other?
  2. What does heaven look like?
  3. Is the devil real?
  4. Why haven’t we had a girl president?
  5. Can we have a hurricane here?
  6. How come their house is so tiny?
  7. Why doesn’t his mommy have gas money?

Some of the questions are clearly easier to answer than others. This week, her question of choice was:

“What is a tomboy?” asked my curious 7-year-old.

As she asked the gears in my head started to turn. It felt like something that should have such a simple answer.

How to handle the tomboy stereotypeHowever, in today’s world, as I thought through it, the label of being a tomboy didn’t feel as simple. It seemed to box up the idea of being a girl – everything in the box was ok and everything outside of the box was not.

How I defined it

“It’s a girl that likes things that are considered more boy-like,” I finally said. I knew it wasn’t a perfect answer but figured it was something we could build on.

In a world that’s becoming more gender fluid, I didn’t want to give her the impression that being a tomboy is a bad thing. Because it clearly isn’t.

I also didn’t want to give her the impression that there were “girl things” and “boy things.” Because I want her to believe she can do all the things.

I don’t want her to feel like she has to be boxed in by the idea of being female.

“Am I a tomboy?!?” she shrieked. “I love video games!”

I looked at her in the rearview mirror and her eyes were filled with worry. Clearly, someone had already given her the impression that being a tomboy was negative.

“No sweetie, you’re not,” I said to my girl who was sitting there in pink pants, a pink shirt and wearing a giant JoJo bow on her head. “But it wouldn’t be a bad thing if you were. They’re just girls that like different things. There’s no right way to be a girl.”

She looked thoughtful but didn’t say anything.

“Where did this come from? Were you talking about it at school?”

“I don’t remember,” she said and then started looking out the window. This is now the answer I get when she doesn’t want to tell me.

Why it was concerning

But this is a conversation that’s stayed with me.

I hated that:

  1. It had already become something that was negative in her little mind.
  2. Somehow it was being discussed at school in a way that would give her concern.
  3. That still, in her generation, young girls were already being put in a little box – being judged for what they were wearing, the activities they like and who they are friends with.

We’ve already personally dealt with bullying so the fact that her peers are defining each other based on their looks, activities and gender shouldn’t surprise me.

But it did.

Call me idealistic but I had hoped our children would be past the generations where people were given labels defined to make them feel bad – especially for women.

While I don’t believe being a tomboy is necessarily a bad word, I would hate if this upset one of my daughter’s peers or made her feel less.

Limiting labels

Children pick up on stereotypes and gender “norms” early in life and, at the very least, the word tomboy is limiting.

If certain things are considered more boy-like or girl-like then we really aren’t giving children permission to explore all the things that may interest them.

After all, a girl who loves video games might go on to create the next big thing in the gaming world, a girl who loves soccer may go on to be the next Megan Rapinoe and a girl that loves to play with Star Wars Legos may go on to be an architect that designs some of the very first buildings on Mars.

It’s time to let our children be who they are without needing to fit them into boxes, and it’s still important that they get that message too.

We can’t always feel like we’re winning at parenthood, but if we can teach our children to be kind to others and allow them to fully be themselves – and accept that – then they’re winning everyday.

The goal is giving them a world where they won’t be limited by old-fashioned labels they learn on the playground. In doing that, our parent game is strong…no matter what question they ask next.

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41 COMMENTS

  1. I love this! I was a bit of a tomboy. My daughter has some aspects of it. She loves to dress up, but at the same time, she can climb trees and get dirty, no problem. I just tell her she can be who she wants.

  2. I have three brothers and while we were growing up, my motto was anything you can do I can do better. I probably was more than a bit of a tomboy but never thought about in terms like that and neither did my parents. I was competitive and never thought much about it.

  3. These are really good points. It’s always surprising when they come home from school with something that you definitely didn’t teach them. It’s great that you were able to pick up on so much from the conversation and that you made her feel accepted.

  4. Our children should be taught to be kind and to be themselves. It is a shame that a child would be worried they had a label. But to be fair, boy and girl are labels too, ones that come with their own questions.

  5. My daughter was considered a tomboy. She is trying to raise my granddaughter to understand that girls and boys can like many things, even things not stereotypically considered girly or boyish.

  6. I feel I was considered a tomboy when younger and actually still probably am that way. I agree kiddos should be able to be how they want to be without being labeled.

  7. I think you handled this conversation with grace and tact and with some excellent information. There’s so much labelling that happens in the school years and kids are navigating so many twists and turns already…adding labels just seems so unfair. I think your daughter is lucky to have a mom like you, who willingly seeks the information necessary to help her daughter feel her best about herself. Way to go Mom!!

  8. I was a tomboy as a child my mom thought I would never grow out of it and I have not lol. I think allowing kids to be themselves is key. Great conversations

  9. I feel like I navigate tricky conversations with my youngest 2 more than I ever did with my older 3. It seems like the world is changing and changing quickly. I think you handled this conversation well. It’s so important to help our kids realize they can be anything they want and help them to never feel “less-than” because of that choice.

  10. I liked your answer, “there’s no right way to be a girl.” That is a great way to sum up that we are all unique and different. When kids are talking about this, you have a friend who is unsure of someone who is different than herself. That’s sad, but that child is reachable.

  11. It is a shame that people are still trying to put limits on kids based on gender. It sounds like you’re doing a great job in helping her to grow up being proud of herself and empathetic to others.

  12. Nowadays this kind of conversation is so common to have with your kids. I had something like that last week and it’s not so easy to handle it, you always need to give the right answer!

  13. I think you handled this conversation very well. I have encouraged both my girls in “tomboy”-ish behaviors since day one (and yet they each have adopted their own “girly” behaviors at the same time), and so far they have not had any concerns at all about this – i.e., no “weird” questions from friends or schoolmates. Three resources you might try for your daughter to encourage her to be whomever she wants are a) joining Girl Scouts (which both my girls are in and which really works to build up girls’ sense that they can do ANYTHING they want), b) the now dated but still useful album by Marlo Thomas & Friends _Free To Be You And Me_, and c) the Free To Be-inspired album for the 21st century, _All Kinds of You And Me_ by Grammy-nominated artist Alastair Moock. All SUPER opportunities/resources. Hang in there, and good luck!

  14. I was a bit of a tomboy myself and I know that has changed a lot since then. I think you explained it well to your little girl and she won’t have that negative image of a tomboy in her mind.

  15. I think our society is becoming more accepting of girls being “tomboys”. I have a 13 year old daughter and she has been a tomboy since she started school and still is. Most of her best friends are dudes and upon inspection of her friendships I’m totally fine with this decision. One day I asked her why she isn’t friends with more girls. She told me, “The girls just like to gossip and some of them can be downright mean. The dudes just like to talk about video games and anime. That’s what I like.” Enough said.

  16. When I was a kid I wore my brothers old hand me downs and did not want ruffly girl clothes and I never wanted to play with makeup. I still don’t. I don’t like heels and lipstick and all that fluff but that’s just how I am and how I always will be. One of my daughters LOVES being dressed up and playing with makeup. Everyone is different.

  17. This is definitely an interesting read. To be honest, I have no idea how to respond if my kids would ask me the same. So, thank you for sharing your insight on this matter. Appreciate it.

  18. I wish this wasn’t even a thing 🙁 Some girls like jumping, climbing, racing and being rough. Some boys like being calm, drawing, playing inside.
    Everyone is different and that’s ok!
    I have 4 kids who kinda just get on with everything. We haven’t really had to deal with this much thankfully.

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