In celebration of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, you may be wondering how such little kids could possibly grasp the complexities of gender issues… Well, as our resident child psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Adams of Personalized Parenting explains, there is no such thing as starting too young on gender equality.
Dr. Elizabeth Adams
Child Psychologist, Personalized Parenting
Children develop an awareness of gender stereotypes at an alarmingly early age. Generally, children start to identify and learn stereotypes related to toys, clothing, and even professions between the ages of two and six. Gender stereotypes are often reinforced through television, advertisements, and daily interactions, which can lead to the internalization of limiting views on how girls and boys “should” behave. Reinforcing rigid gender stereotypes can hamper development, limit ideas about future careers, stifle emotional development and expression (particularly for boys), and reduce the likelihood of healthy and equitable relationships later in life.
Parents have a huge influence on whether or not a child internalizes stereotypes, and can be empowered to challenge restrictive views about gender their child receives. Below are five tips to challenge gender stereotypes and strategies to discuss gender equality with children.
Language is powerful.
One driver of stereotypes is the language that children hear, and the words we choose when we talk to children. Language sends subtle (or not so subtle) messages to children about how to behave and what is expected of them. Often, there are significant differences in the ways that parents talk to boys and girls. A young girl who is assertive might be described as “bossy,” and often, boys expressions of emotions are squandered. Research indicates that parents are far more likely to talk about emotions and teach social-emotional skills to girls when compared to boys, which can send subtle but powerful messages to boys about the acceptability of displaying emotions. The takeaway? Watch how we talk to our children – ensure that we are not avoiding discussions about feelings with our boys, and watch that we don’t criticize our girls for active and leadership behavior.
Choose toys and clothing that are non-gender conforming.
If you stroll down a toy aisle, or walk through a children’s clothing department, it isn’t hard to spot the differences in aisles marketing to boys versus girls. In fact, gender-stereotyped marketing is big business. The separation of toys and clothes, coupled with highly salient gender-stereotyped goods, reinforces the idea for young children that certain things are “for girls” and other things are “for boys.” While working against such powerful and ever-present messages can be difficult, it is not impossible. Invest in toys that are more “neutral” in appearance - go for the natural wood blocks instead of the pink or blue set. Take it one step further by including (and being comfortable with!) a range of toys for your child. We buy toys for our children far before they can vocalize a preference, and we are thereby subtly suggesting our own preferences. Go ahead and include dinosaurs, kitchen-sets, dolls, racecars, and other fun toys for your child – regardless of their biological sex.
Use books to challenge stereotypes.
One powerful way to fight gender stereotypes is to challenge the story and “poke holes” in the messages sent by the stereotypes. An active and easy way to do this is by reading books with your child that challenge gender stereotypes and traditional gender roles. A few suggested titles are included in our Discover collection:
Point out examples you see of real life people who challenge stereotypes.
There are wonderful examples around us every day of individuals challenging gender stereotypes. If you see an example of an individual with a career that challenges stereotypes, make note of it. You may even seek out instances to expose your child to individuals in gender non-conforming roles (confession: I purposefully chose a female dentist and a male dance teacher for my daughter). Reinforce respectful views on gender – teach your children to respect individuals who express their gender identity in a variety of ways, and don’t shy away from people who challenge stereotypes. Go boldly and comfortably into spaces that embrace differences, like Drag Queen Story Hour, which allows kids to see gender fluidity and connect with queer role models who defy rigid gender restrictions.
Kindly, but firmly, challenge your child’s stereotypes.
It is not an uncommon experience that parents who make a concerted effort to challenges gender stereotypes find that their four-year-old has firmly held beliefs about gender, or asserts strongly that something is “boy stuff” or “only for girls.” The need to categorize and the pressure to conform is powerful, and children often take cues from their peers about how to behave as they try to connect. If this happens, don’t dismay, but do challenge beliefs kindly and firmly, without disparaging their choices. If your child says that nail polish is only for girls, you can matter-of-factly point out that some boys like to wear nail polish. If your son says that only men are firefighters, you should tell him that girls are absolutely firefighters (bonus points for finding literature and videos that back it up). If your four-year old daughter is all about princesses and your three year old boy refuses to wear anything but blue, know that it happens, and it is ok for your child to express themselves in gender traditional ways as well – just know that there are other ways you can (and should) instill a respect for a variety of gender expressions. For older children, you can begin to point out messages sent in the media, and state why you might not agree with an advertisement that shows only girls playing with princess dolls.
Dr. Elizabeth Adams is a clinical psychologist who specializes in child development, child behavior, and working with children and families. Elizabeth lives in Falls Church, Virginia with her husband Rick and their daughter. Elizabeth provides direct parent coaching to parents across the world through her online coaching practice, Personalized Parenting. For more information, visit www.personalizedparenting.org.