When Neve Cada first walked into her kindergarten classroom, she looked at the handful of kids already there and turned to run. "Where are all the girls?" she asked her mom. Since her Fort Collins, Colorado, school uses a staggered start system, Neve just happened to be the only girl in the room that morning. That would concern many kindergartners. "By age 5 or 6, children spend the vast majority of their playtime with same-sex peers," says Richard Fabes, Ph.D., director of the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University, in Tempe. As kids get better at separating "boy stuff" from "girl stuff," their preference for same-sex play intensifies, which can make them more likely to embrace gender stereotypes. Help your child mix-and-mingle with these tips.Speak Up
Many kids seem to develop their own rules about who can play with whom. Interestingly, children are more likely to play with opposite-sex friends when adults are around, especially if no other kids are watching, says Dr. Fabes. So if your child thinks playing with girls puts him at risk of being teased or catching "cooties," remind him how nice it feels to be welcomed to join in on group play and encourage him to be inclusive at school and elsewhere. It can be as subtle as saying to your son, "I'll bet that girl over there likes to play catch too. Let's ask if she wants to throw the ball with us."
Kids this age tend to have very specific ideas about what boys and girls are "supposed" to do -- or not do. Pink is for girls, blue is for boys; girls play house, boys play sports. In fact, experiments show that kids care so much about being a good "team player" for their own gender that they'll often stick together even when they'd rather do something else. Beware of inadvertently reinforcing those stereotypes with a casual comment here and there, says Dr. Fabes, since it takes a conscious effort to help kids see beyond the boundaries of the boy world and girl world. You can help by thinking outside the usual gender boxes when you shop for gifts, decorate your child's bedroom, or plan activities.
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.