6 Ways You Can Avoid Gender Stereotypes of Your Kids

6 Ways You Can Avoid Gender Stereotypes of Your Kids

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.

6 Ways You Can Avoid Gender Stereotypes of Your Kids
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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."

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.

1. Don’t assume your boys don’t have the right (verbal) stuff. 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. You can see how alike boys and girls are in the illustration below.

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. Vaccinate your daughters against teachers' math 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 were the girls’ (but not the boys’) math achievement scores 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,” then 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.

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

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