These days, it is less likely for a teacher to tell their students overtly that boys are better at math than girls or for a tee ball coach to tell a little girl overtly that the boys are stronger than she is. However, gendered messages certainly have not disappeared from our children’s lives. Research shows that many children have strong gender biases about boys being smarter, stronger, and more capable than girls. As it turns out, many of these stereotypes are learned through subtle and covert–yet very strong–messaging that children see and hear while just living their daily lives. Children are impacted by gendered messages, whether they hear them on TV or see them while running family errands, sitting in their classrooms, or participating in extracurriculars. Even today, there is no shortage of exposure to messages about gender norms.
For instance, children might hear a sports coach “joking” with boys about how important it is not to “throw like a girl.” While we like to think there’s been progress, even today, toy and clothing aisles at the store are often clustered into “Boy” and “Girl” sections, which clearly limits choices boys and girls might make about what toys to play with and what clothes to wear.
Children subtly learn about gender roles in the classroom as well. I’ve previously addressed how teachers’ attention is divided along gender lines in the classroom. An ethnographic study found that elementary-aged boys often “boysplain” (a child version of mansplaining) by asserting their own knowledge and rejecting other classmates’ answers, which undermines their girl classmates’ confidence. Boysplaining–and the fact that many teachers do not stop it–implicitly sends a message that boys can exercise power in the classroom in a way girls cannot.
Even though we cannot control the gendered messages our children receive, we do have the power to talk with them about how to notice and think critically about these messages. By being proactive, we have the power to influence the impact of these messages. Take a look at this great resource for some tips about what you can do to counter gender stereotypes!
Last–but certainly not least–moms have to take care of themselves! Not only are you impacted by gender stereotypes (we all are), but you’re also trying to help your child navigate this scene. It can be overwhelming at times. As a professional coach for women and mothers, I would be honored to offer my support as you balance between helping your child and taking good care of YOURSELF!
Contributor Statement: Melissa Santos (firstname.lastname@example.org) contributed to the research and writing of this blog. Melissa currently works as a psychology lab manager and is preparing to apply for graduate programs in child development.
*Note: While this blog focuses on messages that youth receive about being male or female, it’s important to note that youth of all gender identities are impacted by gender stereotypes.