How parents and caregivers can move beyond gender stereotypes

Is what we think of as “for boys” or “for girls” written in stone? Some childhood development experts argue that children learn these stereotypes from grownups, and that it starts at a very young age.

Take gender-specific toys: Toys directed at boys tend to have more to do with visual spatial skills and active/physical play, whereas toys directed at girls are more focused on language arts and social skills. Children can take cues from those focuses, form their own gender stereotypes, and grow up thinking that certain skills are reserved for boys, while certain skills are just for girls. This can limit children’s perceptions of what they’re good at, what they’re capable of, or even what is possible for them.

But kids don’t necessarily have to live by those strict stereotypes—just ask Riley:

Riley Video

As parents and caregivers, you can help prevent kids from forming and internalizing some of these gender stereotypes. Here’s how.

 

Think beyond two groups.

It takes a little thought and practice, but avoid reinforcing the gender binary—the idea that there are only two distinct and opposite genders, masculine and feminine. Not everyone fits into one of those categories.

Instead, try to think about gender identity as a spectrum with characteristics that intersect and overlap. Remember that there isn’t one way to be “male,” one way to be “female”—there’s a wide range of ways to express gender.

 

Avoid assumptions.

Making assumptions about gender is something we’ve been taught to do since birth, so it can be tricky to stop. However, gender isn’t always cut and dry—take the recent uproar about Garfield’s gender identity.

Instead of making your own assumptions, try not to label a child’s stuffed animal or toy a particular gender—let the child do that and support their decision. Additionally, if children are playing together, avoid gendered romantic labels like “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.”

 

Create a new greeting.

One way to resist the gender binary and avoid assumptions is to avoid gender in a greeting.

For example, when you greet a group of children, instead of saying, “Hi boys and girls,” which reinforces the gender binary, try, “Hi friends,” or address a group of children based on what they’re doing: “Hi artists/climbers/explorers,” etc.

 

Don’t let gender make the rules.

Children enjoy and benefit from all kinds of imaginative and creative play—regardless of gender. When hosting playdates and parties, don’t let gender determine the activity.

Instead, offer art, active play, dress up, superhero play, dance, etc. to all children, regardless of the gender of your guests. Playing dress up and playing superhero have much in common, and all children can benefit from (and enjoy) many different ways to play.

 

Ignore blue and pink.

There are an awful lot of ways that stores and manufacturers gender the toys they make—so much so that it can be obvious which store aisles are “for boys” and which are “for girls.” But like Riley asks in the video above, who makes those rules anyway?

Ignore those rules and, when purchasing gifts for your kids, relatives, or friends, don’t limit yourself to toys labeled “boys” or “girls.” All children deserve (and want) the opportunity to explore a variety of interests—regardless of gender.

 

Read more about how Chicago Children’s Museum tries to remove gender stereotypes from our exhibits and why.

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Talking to kids about social injustice and discrimination

As a cultural institution and a place for children, Chicago Children’s Museum is constantly thinking about how kids understand and interact with the world around them, and how that world impacts them. Kids’ ears can pick up bits and pieces of the most complicated conversations, which in turn can prompt adult-sized questions.

Regardless of your political beliefs, these conversations can bring up questions and concerns about discrimination and fairness, and it can be challenging to know the best ways to tackle it with your kids.

We’ve put together some ideas for parents and caregivers to have meaningful conversations with children of all ages about issues of equality and diversity, and how to get those conversations started.

 

Teach them empathy.

Being able to empathize with others who are treated unfairly is an early step in understanding the damage that is done by discrimination and inequality. However, kids need to learn empathy—we’re not born with it. Parents and caregivers need to talk about what it means to empathize, encourage their kids to work toward it, and model it themselves.

Sometimes books can be great discussion tools. Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry is a great story to kick off conversations about empathy.

 

Relate larger issues to their smaller worlds.

Children may not be able to understand the details of civil rights, but they can understand why it isn’t fair to cut in line for the playground slide. Kindness and fairness are ideas that kids understand and relate to very early on. Show kids that their worlds and the world around them are related.

The book What Does It Mean To Be Kind by Rana DiOrio talks about kindness in a world that kids understand: the classroom.

 

Help them explore difference—without generalizing.

We ask kids to point out which block is red and which block is blue, but when it comes to people, we insist we’re all the same. Kids notice differences—be honest and encourage them to explore those differences in positive ways.

The book The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler (and published by Chicago Children’s Museum) teaches kids to not only acknowledge difference, but to celebrate it too.

 

Hold yourself accountable—but not to the level of perfection.

Nobody’s perfect. We all have our own biases, and children hear what we say and take it all in. Avoid speaking in generalizations about other people and question others when they do so. If you do speak unfairly about a person or group, openly acknowledge the mistake.

 

Continue the conversation—but avoid oversharing.

Listen carefully to children’s questions and take cues about what they want to talk about. As adults, we have a tendency to provide too many details and concepts that may well be beyond their comprehension. Try using open-ended questions like “What are you curious about?” to get to the heart of their concerns. Then you can help them find more information about what they would like to know. And if you’re not sure how to start the conversation, you can always turn to books like the ones we listed above.

 

Talking about prejudice and discrimination is not something we can check off a list—it’s an ongoing conversation. Help your children see the world through a lens of compassion and kindness throughout their childhoods that will last well into their adult lives.

Parents for Parents: Helping Young Children Make Friends

The Pritzker Playspace at Chicago Children’s Museum features a talkback board where we ask parents’ opinions and/or advice on various subjects. Our current topic is:

Parents for Parents 1

Here is what our visitors had to say:

What other tips have you tried, successfully or otherwise?