Girls don’t play with superheroes!…How to talk to little kids about gender stereotypes.
Have you heard this riddle before…
“A father and son get in a car crash and are rushed to the hospital.
The father dies.
The boy is taken to the operating room and the surgeon says:
“I can’t operate on this boy, because he’s my son.”
Miller, et al
How is that possible?
I used this riddle when I opened an Equality and Diversity workshop for teachers a few years back.
90% of the all female audience just couldn’t work it out. Despite knowing that we were there to discuss equality they could not decipher that the doctor was a woman.
It’s important to recognise that it is human nature to generalise. Even the most open-minded of us do it.
If we want to effectively challenge inequalities then this is something that we need to accept.
We all use stereotypes, all the time, without knowing it.
We have met the enemy of equality, and the enemy is us.
Why do we stereotype?
Understanding why we generalise is the first step to ensuring that we don’t prejudice by acting upon our initial assumptions.
There is a difference between generalisations and stereotypes…although I think in many cases the lines are pretty blurry!
Generalisations are useful. They save our brain having to work out every situation that we come across in our daily lives over and over again.
We can thank our ability to generalise for knowing not to ask a six-year-old to push our broken down car up the hill or ask our Granny to lift a heavy box up the stairs.
These generalisations are generally helpful as they save us a lot of time.
If you think of stereotypes as a flaw in our mind, some sort of pathology or cruelty, you actually won’t understand them very well. You won’t know how to combat them.
The trouble is that these generalisations about groups of people usually lead us to stereotype. Stereotypes are bad because they fix people into limiting categories. Once we’ve formed our stereotypes then it’s difficult to change our judgements of people.
When stereotypes cause prejudice…
You’d have to live under a rock to deny that there are some pretty damaging stereotypes floating around our society.
Little girls and boys growing up in this world are bombarded with messages about the women and men they should aspire to be.
I just had a flick through a Christmas gift catalogue…
Girls with pink prams and makeup sets.
Boys with wrestlers and monster trucks.
On the surface it can all seem pretty harmless but it’s anything but.
TV and films also confirm many of these distorted ideas.
Girls aren’t lead characters and are definitely not the ones to call if you’re in trouble.
Girls obsess over their appearance and talk about boys and make-up a lot.
Boys have to be strong, dominant and aggressive. They definitely don’t cry.
Boys are mocked for being less capable parents, useless at running a household and generally just obsessed with women.
So, our kids are looking at these books, watching these shows and coming to their own conclusions as young as age 2.
The impact these stereotypes are having on our society is frightening.
The impact it has on our girls…
81% of women reported having experience sexual harassment at the point in their life.
and our boys…
Boys engage in and are the victims of physical violence to a much greater extent than girls; they die more frequently from unintentional injuries, are more prone to substance abuse and suicide; and as adults their life expectancy is shorter than that of women.” The Guardian.
OK so we probably can’t blame all these issues on Gaston harassing Belle in Beauty and the Beast…but it’s not helping.
The attitude of “boys will be boys”, “she was asking for it”, “you hit like a girl” has got to go!
As parents there is a lot that we can do to challenge the generalisations our young children form early on and stop them thinking that stereotyping is OK.
So, what can we do about it?
Shut off the TV?
Burn the books?
Start calling each other names?
As a mother raising two beautiful little boys, I am always conscious of the messages they are receiving about the world. How they are making sense of things.
We’ve always let our boys play with whatever toys they want. Our youngest’s favourite toys are a blue motorbike and pink baby doll that sits in a pull-along horse.
So, when my three-year old pipes up one morning “Girls don’t play superheroes” I admit that I was initially a little surprised.
I reminded myself that he was just making sense of the world around him and used it as an opportunity to challenge a stereotype that he’d formed from who knows where.
Talking about stereotypes with young kids…
So, this is what we do (incase you’re interested!)
1. We don’t generalise…either positively or negatively. Instead we use specific language rather than talking about social groups.
So, that morning our conversation went something like this:
Three year old – “Girls don’t play superheroes.”
Me “Mm, who are you thinking of?” Who do you know that doesn’t play superheroes?”
Three year old – “xyz said she doesn’t like them.”
Me ‘Oh yes, xyz said she doesn’t like superheroes”.
This response shows him that ‘xyz’ is an individual rather than just another ‘girl’ who will all have similar thoughts and feelings to all other girls.
Research indicates that this method is effective:
Sometimes children speak this way because they are testing out whether drawing a generalization is sensible. By bringing them back to the specific incident, we communicate to them that it is not. Combating Stereotypes
It’s so so tempting to reply something like “girls can play anything they want to play” but it’s better to be more specific.
2. We’re aware of the subtle (and not so subtle) messages they’re receiving.
There are some pretty cringe worthy TV programs aimed at kids. Some are pretty in your face about it like Smurfette in The Smurfs while others are a little more subtle…think Paw Patrol.
I’ve put together a post about our favourite TV shows for young kids…their educational and have positive male and female characters. It’s here if you fancy a read.
3. We surround our children with as many positive role models as possible…both MALE and FEMALE.
Personally, I think it’s a shame to go down the route of “step aside men, it’s women’s turn to rule the world now”.
I kind of understand where it’s coming from and I can see it empowering some people but I don’t think it will help us to overcome prejudices in the long run.
We home educate and are trying to travel as much as possible with our boys. Thankfully our boys surrounded by positive role models and I think that it goes a long way in teaching them about what they can achieve in life and how they should treat people.
Books are also a great way of introducing kids to different ideas and possibilities. There are some beautiful books available that look at the lives of both inspirational women and men.
We love the empowering series “Little People, BIG DREAMS”. They explore the lives of extraordinary people and are available in board-book format so are great for babies and toddlers.
4. Body autonomy
We don’t force kissing or hugging and my most used phrase with our two toddlers at the moment is “he said no so we don’t touch his body”.
I think it’s really important to teach our children that no means no.
How awesome would it be if all the little girls and little boys could grow up celebrating their individualities.
Grow up knowing that their gender didn’t dictate their hopes and dreams.
Grow up knowing thay they were free to follow their own paths.
So, what do you think?
I’d love to hear your views…
Miller, Sally, et al. McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/gender-bias-riddles.
Rhodes, Marjorie. The Conversation, The Conversation, 1 June 2018, theconversation.com/combatting-stereotypes-how-to-talk-to-your-children-71929.
Paul, Annie. Where Bias Begins, www.psychologytoday.com/intl/articles/199805/where-bias-begins-the-truth-about-stereotypes