It has been extraordinarily well-established that gender stereotypes have an overwhelmingly negative impact on children. Much research indicates that the reason boys and girls behave differently is likely a result of very early environmental influences, many of which parents are not even aware of. Studies have shown that parents treat even newborn boys and girls differently, that the commercials children see can affect the things they’re willing to learn, and that the threat of being stereotyped can lower girls’ math performance and boys’ verbal performance. Children deserve to live in a world where all possibilities are open to them and in which they don’t feel limited by their gender. In a society in which gender is constantly made salient, it can be nearly impossible to eliminate all gender stereotyping, but there are some steps you can take to limit the most damaging gender stereotypes. Here’s how to minimize the effect that gendered stereotypes have on your child:
Limit Media Consumption
One of the worst culprits in gender conditioning is media. From commercials that tell children how boys and girls are “supposed” to act to television shows that encourage girls to be princesses and boys to be violent, media starts giving children gendered messages from the time they are babies. The simplest way to minimize this is to follow the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that children see no television before the age of two. After this age, it’s wise to continue limiting your child’s television consumption to quality programming that is not designed exclusively for boys or girls. Try taping television so you can fast forward through commercials and talk to your child about any gendered messages you see on television.
Make Attributions Carefully
Behavioral attributions are the explanations we give for someone else’s behavior and the causes we offer for what someone else does. Studies have shown that parents tend to make behavioral attributions along gendered lines. A crying boy baby is often said to be angry, while a crying girl baby is said to be said. The result is that the crying girl baby may get more comfort and sympathy than the crying boy baby, leading over the course of a child’s lifetime to a child who acts like the stereotype of his or her gender. When you offer an explanation for why a child is doing something, think carefully about whether you might be offering that explanation based on gender. Better yet, when your child is old enough to talk, ask him his reasons for something rather than guessing!
Encourage Cross Sex Play
Most parents know that, up until puberty, children tend to segregate along gender lines and avoid the other sex like the plague. This can lead to highly stereotypical behavior and result in a child who believes certain options are closed to her by virtue of her gender. Encouraging children to play with the other sex by scheduling play dates with friends or arranging outings with siblings can hep to minimize the effects of gender segregation.
Choose Toys Wisely
A few months ago, my boyfriend and I went shopping for a baby shower. I had worked with children for years and was accustomed to what toy stores looked like, but he was horrified. The girls section was a sea of pink and purple dolls, while the boys section was green and blue, and full of legos and action-oriented toys. My boyfriend remarked that he felt completely unwelcome in the girls section, which helped me to notice how out of place I felt in the boys section! When children play with gendered toys, they learn gender roles. But girls can learn spatial reasoning from playing with action figures and legos, while boys can learn empathy from playing with dolls. Choose gender neutral toys wherever possible for your children, and encourage imaginative play with all toys. Moreover, avoid making gendered attributions for the way children play. Larry Sommers famously reported that his daughters turned toy trucks into dolls and babies and claimed this was the reason he no longer bought them trucks. The truth is that boys often engage in this same behavior, but parents don’t attribute it to their gender. Be very careful with the attributions you make about the way your child plays, and don’t give up just because you see some gendered behavior.
The Involvement of Opposite Sex Parents
Girls need positive male role models from a young age, and boys need positive female role models. Your child’s other sex parent needs to be heavily involved with your child. If you are a single parent, work hard to find an aunt, uncle, or friend who can spend time with your child and teach your child that gender doesn’t have to limit his or her activities.
Make Gender Unimportant
Parents around the world can be heard saying things like, “Be a big girl!” and, “You’re such a good boy!” Replace gendered terms with non-gendered ones and gender will be less important to your kid. Praise your child for being, “Such a good kid” rather than, “Such a good girl.”
Children first and foremost learn the salience of gender from their parents, and if you can avoid limiting your child’s activities in the first few years of life, it is unlikely that your child will be strongly negatively influenced by future lessons in gender roles. As your child gets older, talk to him or her about how gender plays out in life and encourage your child to explore all options!
Delusions of Gender
The Social Psychology of Gender