How to Protect Your Children from Gender Stereotypes
Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson
Health, Wellness, & Safety
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People make assumptions about your child as soon as they spot a pink or blue item of clothing. But talents and abilities do not follow gender lines. How can you keep all the possibilities open for your girl or boy and protect your child from sex-based limitations?
This is not a minor matter. Many people believe that boys’ and girls’ brains are wired differently and that each sex is “naturally” better at one thing or another. These people think that girls talk more and have bigger vocabularies than boys do and they also think that boys are better at science and math and enjoy active play more than girls. Current research, however, supports that there are much fewer differences than we once thought. Overall, boys and girls are “born equal” in abilities and inclinations.
The problem is that because adults believe there are differences, they create differences. Adults steer children into gender-stereotypical patterns of play. They buy children different toys that require different skills and they even actively discourage children from playing with toys that are “not appropriate” for their sex. They encourage boys to be active and caution girls to not climb too high. By permitting some children to play in some ways and discouraging their play in other ways, parents and others send messages to both boys and girls of what is “right” for them to do.
Naturally, this is limiting. Each sex is offered and encouraged in only half of the learning and fun life makes possible.
We do it because it seems “normal.” Here are some gender-based assumptions that might be holding your child back.
- Girls are not more verbal than boys and will not necessarily be better readers and writers than boys. Notice that most famous authors are men. But boys who pick up on an idea that reading is a “girl-thing,” may avoid reading and then become less skilled at it through lack of practice.
- Boys are not better at math than girls are and are not necessarily better at solving difficult problems. Again, girls may pick up on the idea that math is a “boy-thing” and is “too hard” for them. If they believe they can’t do math, they won’t try. If they don’t try, they won’t learn.
- Girls sit still and pay attention better than boys do. This belief hurts both sexes. Girls are reprimanded more for fidgeting than boys are because they are expected to be better behaved. Boys are permitted to be inattentive and silly because “it’s how boys are,” so they pay attention less.
- Boys are not more active than girls or more physically coordinated. But boys are encouraged to run, climb, and test their physical prowess more than girls are, so they get more practice and more coaching.
- Girls are not more caring and nurturing than boys are. Children of both sexes show empathy with others, share their toys, and comfort sad children with equal attention. The idea that boys have to be “macho” and can never be kind is desperately sad.
Here’s the big thing: children are sorted by sex from before they are born. Adults hint in all sorts of ways what is appropriate for boy and for girls from babyhood on. Countering gender stereotypes isn’t something that can wait. It takes active effort, starting right now, no matter how little your child is.
There’s a lot of attention given to math and science for girls at the middle school level, but the message that “you’re a girl, so you’re no good at hard subjects” was sent and received even before kindergarten. There’s also a lot of concern for boys’ lack of reading for pleasure in middle school but, again, these guys are only doing what they’ve been told since they were tots. To help children become all they are destined to be, we have to open the doors to all of their abilities.
- Notice when you are tempted to say, “that’s for boys” or “that’s for girls.” Be as accepting as you can be.
- Notice when you encourage your boy in different things than you encourage your girl. Why?
- Notice when others make assumptions about your children based on nothing but their sex and stereotypical roles.
Notice and change. This summer, especially, when your children are freed from school expectations and traditions, let your children be completely who they are. Notice where gender stereotypes have already started to confine their abilities.
Let your children be all they can be.
© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Join Dr. Anderson in an online conference for teachers and parents. Find out more at Quality Conference for Early Childhood Leaders.