I am a teacher. Every day when I walk the halls of my school, I notice things. More precisely, I notice how many young girls—although highly intelligent, talented, and full of potential—sell themselves short by dressing too provocatively to gain attention, or by dumbing themselves down for the sake of conformity. What disheartens me is that in doing so, these same girls are inadvertently depriving themselves of the opportunity to tap into their talents and uniqueness. This phenomenon is not new. In fact, these behaviors are the result of formative programing—whether intentional or not—by societal labels and the subtle (as well as the not-so-subtle) stereotypical messages girls receive from birth.
As the mother of a spirited and creative 5-year-old daughter, I have seen—from a very early age—how important it is to drive home certain messages about the role she will one day play in society. Every day, I see how important it is to start breaking down these barriers to let her, as well as other little girls, have the freedom and confidence to pursue their dreams according to their standards—not by society’s standards. In other words, I am assuring my daughter that . . .
Yes, girls can love Spiderman.
No, not only boys are able to climb up slides.
Yes, boys are allowed to like the colors pink and purple.
Yes, being called bossy is wrong and you must correct people by stating that you are leading, not bossing!
Now, you may find these comments nonthreatening and maybe even endearing! After all, they are just innocent children’s comments, right? Actually, no, they are not. What’s more alarming to me is that I have already had these discussions with my preschool daughter and that I can see how she is being programmed and labeled by society to fit into a certain mold. I can’t believe it! I read about it every day, and now I am living it with my own child!
I know some people may find this to be too intense. Too extreme. What harm can come from someone being called bossy at the age of 5? Why should I care if she can’t climb a slide while the little boy next to her can easily do so? Well, here’s why this matters: Slowly but surely, if I don’t step in to undo these messages, she will start believing them. If that happens, her mindset will start to become fixed and ever more difficult to change. That is the last thing any parent would want for their child.
So, what’s the solution then? How do we as parents react to this? How can we actively take part in charting a new path for our daughters (and sons)? Well, the first step is to keep your eyes and ears open!
- Be vigilant when choosing toys: Although many girls like dolls (and I’m not suggesting to ban all dolls and tea sets), another approach would be to balance things out by introducing gender-neutral toys, as well as toys geared toward STEM development. In other words, don’t be afraid to introduce a Tonka truck, standard Legos (not the pink and purple ones), and a science set to your daughter’s toy collection. This way, not only are you respecting your daughter’s love of dolls, but you are also minimizing the potential for internalizing stereotyped gender roles by introducing a variety of other creative and thought-provoking toys.
- Build a library that fosters empowerment and possibility: Books are another great way to send the empowerment message home. Make sure there are characters in the book who display strong female roles, or men and boys in roles supporting women and girls. Biographies of strong women tailored for young children are also invaluable!
- Supervise screen time: There are some great videos out there that not only send out pro-girl messages, but also feed the mind! Keep an eye out on what your daughter watches. Again, keep it balanced. If your daughter loves the cutesy, stereotypical girl shows (which, unfortunately, are rarely packed with thought-provoking and stimulating information), make sure to incorporate other, more “intelligent” shows as well. What’s more, be open with your daughter about why it is you set these boundaries. Then, find episodes that you can both agree on. I simply tell my daughter, “This episode is charming, but it is not feeding your mind with creative, new ideas. How about we watch . . .” This works!
- Be mindful of your words and actions: Our children are always watching and listening to us. Make sure to praise your daughter for her effort, hard work, and process—this builds grit. Gently correct her when you hear stereotypical talk about colors, toys, and general interests. Set the example in the home—have dad cook and clean, and mom change the lightbulb and assemble furniture! It works and sends a powerful message. Lead by example.
Incidentally, Phoebe did manage to climb up the slide (with me literally behind her encouraging and slightly pushing her the whole way—both literally and figuratively). When she reached the top, she was proud and she was beaming. I felt that I did my work that day in removing yet another hurdle for my child. It’s a long journey, but one that is well worth it! Today, she is still trying hard to climb that slide on her own, but at least she is trying and even tells other little boys who do manage to climb that she is in training. Perfect!
How do you counter gender-role stereotyping with your children?