Have you ever heard your kid bust out with a statement about what boys or girls can or can’t do that sounds wrong or downright sexist? A lot of us have, which isn’t surprising considering we live in a world where girls as young as 5 have been found to think that men are inherently smarter and more talented than women, and where kids across the globe believe a whole range of harmful gender stereotypes by the time they are 10.
Given this landscape, it can sometimes feel like we are playing whack-a-mole in our attempts to counter the multitude of gendered messages our children are fed every day. Still, knowing what to say beyond, “That’s sexist,” or “That’s not true,” can be tricky.
So here are a few things you might hear from your kids, and some ways you can respond if you do.
1. “She’s Good at Sports (or Math or Science) … for a Girl.”
How you can respond: When you add “for a girl” it makes it sounds like most girls aren’t good at things traditionally associated with boys. But often that is just because they haven’t been given a fair shot. For example, in the case of sports, there just isn’t as much support or media coverage of girls’ and women’s teams, despite the fact that there are plenty of amazing female athletes.
And when it comes to STEM, studies have found that something called “stereotype threat” (which means you actually act according to assumptions that are made about you) holds girls back even if they have the ability to excel. As a result, there are just fewer women in these fields, which contributes to the idea that girls aren’t naturally good in things like math or science.
2. Boys Who Cry Are Babies.
How you can respond: It’s perfectly normal for people of any gender to cry. Sadly, people often start telling boys to stop crying a lot younger than girls. So a lot of us see older boys and men cry less. But that doesn’t mean that boys who do cry are immature. What it means is that they are feeling upset and emotional and are showing it in a pretty normal way.
3. Bat mitzvahs and Baby Namings Aren’t as Important as Bar Mitzvahs or a Bris.
How you can respond: Bat mitzvahs and baby namings are definitely newer traditions, but just because something is newer doesn’t mean it is less important. The newness is often a sign that an ancient religion is catching up with modern culture. And while some congregations don’t do bat mitzvahs or baby namings, and in others, the bat mitzvah ceremony is a bit different than the bar mitzvah, in a whole lot of places, they are actually identical.
4. Boys Are So WIld.
How you can respond: Sure, some boys are wild. But so are some girls. And plenty of boys are super chill. But we often don’t notice this since we are so focused on the loud and active kids.
Many people expect boys to be wild and girls to be calm, so girls may learn early on that certain behaviors are considered less acceptable when they do them than when their brothers or male classmates do, and as a result they may exhibit them less frequently.
At the same time, studies have found that boys may develop self-regulation skills later than girls, and so they may appear wilder than girls of the same age. That can lead to them being judged more harshly for perfectly developmentally appropriate behaviors.
5. That’s Boy (or Girl) Stuff.
How you can respond: Movies, books and games might be marketed to boys or girls, but there is nothing about (insert item here) which makes it just for boys of just for girls. Kids of any gender can play with dolls or cars, or can be into “Frozen” or into Minecraft. Really, there is no direct link between being a boy or a girl that makes certain activities more or less appealing.
Pointing out every time your kids display gender bias can seem unnecessary or exhausting. However, messages about gender are everywhere, and the more they hear you counter the views of the larger culture, the more likely kids are to question such views themselves.
And questioning those views is important since there are some demonstrated negative effects on children who hold really stereotypical beliefs about gender. For example, such views have been found to lead to increased stress and anxiety. Plus, a recent study from Common Sense Media reports that stereotypical gender images in the media can negatively impact kids’ career choices, self-worth, relationships, and ability to achieve their full potential.
While knowing what to say when your child expresses something you find problematic can be tough, not saying anything can make for a lot tougher situations in the long run.