6 Ways Wise Parents Fight Back Against Gender Stereotypes

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child in mask having fun in front of confetti

By Caryl Rivers

Kids, new research is telling us, pick up very early on what sort of behavior is appropriate for girls and boys. Even before they learn to talk, they’ve absorbed multiple messages about the role of the sexes.

Young kids start out with a wide-ranging curiosity, and learn all sorts of things from the world around them. But as this period closes, kids enter the culture created by adults, a culture that guides them into areas the adults think appropriate.

Parents are being told that their young boys are “hardwired” for assertiveness, aggression and acting out—that’s just what boys do. In the same breath, parents are told that their girls are wired for nurturing, co-operation and passivity. Girls should focus on areas they’re good at—relationships and communication—and avoid the stuff that’s hard for them, like math, science and understanding systems.

Bestsellers and educational “gurus” tell us that boys' and girls' brains are so different that they need to be parented and educated in very different ways.

True? No.

Lise Eliot, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Chicago and the author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain, conducted an exhaustive review of the scientific literature on human brains from childhood to adolescence. She concluded there is "surprisingly little evidence of sex differences in children's brains."

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Parents can fight back against toxic stereotypes and help girls and boys discover all their talents so that they can follow their dreams, wherever they may lead. Here are six suggestions for mothers and fathers based on the newest research.

How to protect your kids by fighting back against gender stereotypes

1. Don’t assume your boys lack verbal skills.

It’s a myth that boys have inherently weaker verbal skills than girls. Many voices say boys should be given “informational texts” to read instead of the classics or any material containing emotion, which they aren’t good at either. But in fact, overall, there are virtually no differences in verbal abilities between girls and boys.

In 2005, University of Wisconsin psychologist Janet Hyde synthesized data from 165 studies on verbal ability and gender. They revealed a female superiority so slight as to be meaningless.

Boys have the ability to master verbal skills. But sometimes, in actual performance, they score more poorly than girls. Why? They may shun reading, because it’s not a “boy thing” to do, and, with less practice, they may actually do less well. Parents can offset this downward spiral by encouraging boys to read challenging material and by expecting them to perform well. The earlier this happens, the better.

2. Protect your girls from their teachers' anxiety.

One example of parent power comes from a new study of first-and second-graders that found that female elementary school teachers who lack confidence in their own math skills could be passing their anxiety along to the girls they teach.

The more anxious teachers were about their own math skills, the lower the girls’ (but not the boys’) math achievement scores were at the end of the school year. The female students were also more likely than the male students to agree that "boys are good at math, and girls are good at reading."

But there may be a silver lining in this story for parents. Even if your daughter has a teacher with high math anxiety, it’s not inevitable that she’s going to have problems with math. It turns out that parents (or others) can “vaccinate” girls against stereotypes.

Teachers’ anxiety alone didn’t do the damage. If girls already had a belief that “girls aren’t good at math,” their achievement suffered. However, girls who didn’t buy into the stereotype, who thought that, of course, girls could be good at math, didn’t tumble into an achievement gulf.

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3. Use expressive speech rather than brief, curt commands when you talk to both boys and girls.

The truth is that verbal ability isn’t hardwired by gender, but parents, teachers and other adults do have a very strong impact on children’s early language skills, for good or ill.

A 2006 study looked at mothers of pre-verbal infants (6, 9 and 14 months) in a free-play situation. With their little girls, mothers engaged in more conversation and expected them to be more responsive than their sons. A mother might ask her daughter, “You’re playing with the octopus. You like that, right?” Mothers were much less likely to engage in such verbal exchanges with their sons. More often, they gave sons simple directions, such as “Come here.” (The same thing happens with older preschoolers)

Might these mothers be acting on expectations that their sons are not as verbal as their daughters? And, since the human brain develops in response to external stimuli, were the boys getting shortchanged? Probably so.

If mothers talk more to their daughters, girls have a greater chance of hearing and imitating words, an advantage that could easily account for their higher early vocabulary scores.

Any parent concerned about his or her son’s language abilities could make sure that the language used with boys is rich and peppered with emotion. This will help them to speak, read and write well.

4. Encourage your daughter's interest in science and math.

We applaud the messages we now send to girls in middle school that "of course girls can do math and science." But these messages are often way too late. New research finds that even when girls say they believe this message, they don’t really believe it. Too often, they just know what parents and teachers want to hear.

Data show that “stereotype threat” has a dampening effect on their actual performance. Women and girls can suffer an extra burden of anxiety, because they are aware of the negative stereotype of the group to which they belong. When they are told that women and girls aren’t good at math, females do much worse on a math test than when they are told nothing at all before the test.

So, as early as possible, talk to little girls about science and math, actively encourage their interest and buy toys that promote spatial skills—like LEGO blocks, Lincoln Logs, erector sets and blocks. Don’t think girls don’t like them. They may just have decided such toys are not OK for girls. With your encouragement, they may discover that that is not so.

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5. Don’t underestimate your girls.

From early on, parents may discourage girls from taking risks by underestimating their daughters’ abilities.

In one study, 11-month-old babies crawled down a carpeted slope that had adjustable angles. First, the mothers were asked to adjust the ramp to the angle they thought their babies would be capable of crawling down. Then the kids were turned loose.

It turned out that boys and girls didn’t differ when it came to the steepness of the slopes they crawled down. In fact, the girl babies tended to be more daring. But the mothers’ expectations were all wrong. They thought their daughters would avoid the steep slopes, while they expected their boys would be fearless.

This intriguing study reveals how mothers (and maybe fathers ) start to underestimate their girls’ physical abilities at an early age. It also explains why adults are quicker to intervene when they perceive that little girls are doing something “risky.” But encouraging girls to take reasonable risks gives them confidence and helps them grow and thrive.

6. Help your sons develop their natural caring abilities.

Boys are naturally just as caring as girls, notes Harvard psychologist William Pollack, author of Real Boys. “They may have different patterns of behavior and learn and communicate through action, but they are as capable of being sensitive and empathetic as girls are.”

Male infants, he says, are more emotionally expressive than baby girls, but boys, as they grow, too often learn to display a “mask of masculinity” that hides their inner feelings. That doesn't mean they don’t have them. In fact, boys from a very early age are as nurturing as girls towards younger siblings, according to an international study of 12 cultures.

However, after age five, thanks to gender stereotypes, boys start to think of caring for young children as a “mommy thing.” They often transfer their nurturing abilities to their pets. There is no gender difference in the degree to which children love and care for their pets.

As it turns out, parents play a major role in boys’ nurturing behavior.

Psychologist Judith Blakemore, from Indiana University–Purdue University, Fort Wayne, found that when young boys get praise for being loving and caring towards baby siblings, they become virtually indistinguishable from girls of the same age in the amount of interest they demonstrated in babies and young brothers and sisters.

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Parents’ actions speak louder than their words in shaping children’s caring behavior.

We think parents need to know that many of the ‘trendy’ ideas they are hearing about their kids is junk science based on no real data. Even when parents view these ideas with suspicion, it’s hard to resist the sales pitches and media hype.

So, forget the pink and blue boxes where your kids are concerned. Education pioneer Howard Gardner of Harvard thinks that children, when they are very young, have wide-ranging curiosity and learn all sorts of things from the world around them.

But then the adult world intrudes; parents, teachers, institutions, markets and society take over and guide children in certain directions. And kids, eager to please, want to go where these powerful figures guide them.

The paths laid out for our kids need to be broad rather than narrow, encouraging children to develop the entire range of abilities that are within their grasp. Parents can be the guides along this road, rather than the sentries who block their way.

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Caryl Rivers is an author, journalist, media critic, and professor of journalism at Boston University. In 2007 she was awarded the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for distinguished journalism.She is the author of four novels and twelve works of nonfiction.