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How to Talk About Gender Stereotypes with Young Children

Updated: Jun 2, 2020

Have you ever been mansplained to by a two-year old? Well, I have. It starts a lot earlier than you think. If you don’t know what “mansplaining” is, then welcome to being a female for the entirety of the existence of the world. To make my life even more ironic, the notion of mansplaining was explained to me by a man. (sigh) Seriously though, mansplaining is when a man explains something to someone (usually a woman) in a condescending or demeaning way.

Sexist behavior is not limited to mansplaining alone and it starts very early with young children. Children as young as three and four are making observations about the world and solidifying beliefs from what they've observed (Sue, 2015). One article found that beliefs around gender stereotypes are solidified by age ten (Coghlan, 2017). In this study, the researchers found these stereotypes common across four different countries and the lead researcher says,

“We were very surprised to see such universality of the myth that boys are strong, confident and leaders, while girls are weak and incompetent, who should be quiet and follow.”

Let me tell you, this sexist behavior starts with the parents. Yes, teachers, other family members, friends, and the media have definite influence but it begins with parents. You may be thinking that these children are too young to understand these concepts but I think you need to give kids more credit. They may not be able to understand complex phrases like “toxic masculinity”, “sexism”, or “mansplaining” but they know what it means to have friends be nice and kind to them.

But it goes even deeper than how to be nice to their friends. One study found that four year old participants were associating pictures of objects as more masculine (e.g. jeans, angry, hammer) or feminine (e.g. dress, broom, pink)(Leinbach, Hort, & Fagot, 1997). These young children were already assuming that it was more “male” to be angry and more “female” to use a broom. These ideas are communicated through the way characters are illustrated in books, the distinctly different pink and blue toy aisles, and what they see their parents doing or confirming. That’s why it’s so important to start these discussions early.

I saw the teachers of a preschool classroom integrate curriculum on gender stereotypes over a year. They talked openly about what girls and boys can and can’t do. There was one point during the school year when they were having conversations about how only boys could be professors and only girls could be teachers. As this preschool program was at the local university, part of the preschool classroom visited a graduate class led by a female professor. When they returned to the preschool classroom, they had more conversations about what boys and girls could do. Here’s what a conversation with them about nail polish sounded like:

Teacher: “We’ve been talking about what boys and girls can and can’t do. Some of you were saying that only boys could be professors. Some of you just went to a class and saw a girl professor. What do you think about that?”

Child 1: “I still think only boys can be professors.”

Child 2: “But we just saw a girl professor.”

Child 3: “My Dad is a professor and he only has boy students.”

Child 2: “But I saw a girl professor with girl students.”

Teacher: “So, both of you noticed that there can be both girl and boy professors who have girl and boy students.”

Children 2 & 3: “Yeah!”

It can definitely be challenging to venture into these types of conversations with young children but I encourage you to push yourself and don’t worry if you don’t say everything right. Here are some topics that you can discuss with young children around the topic of gender stereotypes and sexism:

  • Clothing (e.g. Pants, Dresses, etc)

  • Hair (e.g. Long, Short, etc)

  • Hair Accessories (e.g. Bows, Clips, etc)

  • Toys (e.g. Dolls, Trucks, etc)

  • Professions (e.g. Nurse vs. Doctor)

  • Colors (e.g. Pink or Blue)

  • Bodies (e.g. Strength, Body Parts, etc)

  • Chores (e.g. Lawn Work, Washing Dishes, etc)

  • Parental Roles (e.g. What Mom vs. Dad does)

These types of conversations are usually best initiated while reading books together. You already set aside time to read with your children, so take some of that time to ask a few questions about what you see in the book. You can ask, “Do you think [female character name] is strong?” or “Will [male character name] do the dishes?” or “Does Daddy give you hugs like [female character name]?”. When your child responds, just gently question the root of their logic. If they answer no to the first question, bring it closer to home and ask them if they think you’re strong or if Dad gives them hugs. What we’re trying to do is rewire the assumptions in these young children. You can do this!

  1. Coghlan, A. (2017). Gender stereotypes affect kids everywhere by 10. New Scientist, 235(3144), 9. doi:10.1016/S0262-4079(17)31848-1

  2. Leinbach, M., Hort, B., & Fagot, B. (1997). Bears are for boys: Metaphorical associations in young children’s gender stereotypes. Cognitive Development, 12(1), 107–130.

  3. Sue, D. W. (2015). Race talk and the conspiracy of silence : Understanding and facilitating difficult dialogues on race. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons

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