3 Easy Ways To Tackle Gender Stereotyping Young Children

"There is a pressure on boys to hide their sadness and not to cry."

When we use words such as ‘helpful, quiet, tidy, pretty, gentle, kind and sweetie,’ more often than not we associate this with girls. Whereas using language such as ‘brave, loud and adventurous’ you’re more likely to think of a boy.

According to the Good Childhood Report 2020, children who hold more gender stereotyped views themselves, like saying ‘being tough’ is the most important trait for boys or ‘having good clothes’ is the most important for girls, have lower wellbeing.

In addition to this, there is significant research that finds that challenging gender stereotyped behaviour in early childhood can reduce violence against women and girls, according to Miller et al 2019, Male Adolescents’ Gender Attitudes and Violence Implications for Youth Violence Prevention.

Mel Lane, from Pop’n’Olly — the UK’s leading provider of LGBTQ+ education resources for primary aged children, parents, carers and teachers — spoke to HuffPost UK about the importance of encouraging children to accept others.

She said: “Gender stereotyping is embedded by age of 7 so the biggest impact we have is under 7, and an awful lot of that time is at home.”

On how to tackle gender stereotyping from a young age, Mel says there are three main ways.

1. Language

“Everyone has in their head which words are applicable to boys and which are to girls. We have that message from different places over long periods of time. Children are are building sense of what the world is like. All children sense gender around 18-24 months and associate things with genders.

“The key thing when we use language is if we think from our own perspective, would I use different language if my child was a different gender? If we use gender specific language then we are saying if you’re this gender. these things apply to you.

“So it’s questioning yourself, would I use something different if I was talking to a different gender? What am I reinforcing? Don’t limit conversations about how you look to girls, the first thing people will usually comment on with girls is ‘pretty dress’ or ’you look nice.’So they end up thinking I get attention and praise for how I look,” says Mel.

2. Visibility

“We all see, including children, loads of images throughout the day from all different sources on how we interpret the world - we need to think about this as parents to broaden books, toys and TV. Are we thinking about examples of children and adults of all genders playing with different toys, wearing different clothes, engaging in different activities?

“Do boys see representaiton of dancing? There’s a perception that boys shouldn’t dance. We also don’t see a lot of girls for example doing science. So it
works both ways. It’s also thinking about the idea that people are more happy for a daughter not to conform to a gender stereotype than for a son.

“Are we praising children to try things beyond stereotypes? We aren’t saying girls shouldn’t play with dolls but we are encouraging all kids to try all things and kids to find what’s right for them.

“What children see at home is important too, in two parent households does one parent do cooking, cleaning and washing up? Are there opportunities for the other person who doesn’t do it, to do that sometimes? When you play with kids it’s about thinking are people playing with a wide variety of toys?”

3. Conversations

“The last thing is one of the things that helped my son a lot. Conversations. What we see around us, what we see in terms of boys, clothes and characters. Signifying our support of diversity, saying things like ‘isn’t it great they’re trying this out?’

“In terms of conversations I’ve had with kids I’ve asked do you think it’s ok for anyone to play with these toys? Would it be ok for a boy to play with this toy that’s traditionally for girls? At that age of 5/6 years, asking them which toys are for girls which are for boys.

“First they will say anyone can play with any toys, then they’ll be able to separate toys for boys and girls. When talking they say it’s ok for a boy to play with a doll and pink house, but these things are brought out in conversations and helping them to think is it ok.

“I also like showing them traditional girls and boys clothing and asking do we need boys and girls clothing? Boys shoes are often robust for playing, what you’ve got on your feet can impact what you’re doing e.g. climbing. Girls aren’t as robust for climbing and I talk to kids about that.

“Emotions are a key one — talking and making sure children know showing emotions is ok, there is a pressure on boys to hide their sadness and not to cry. I encourage parents to talk to their kids about this and help them understand that asking for help and expressing sadness is a good thing.

“I was talking to some boys aged 7/8 and I said to the whole class, is it ok for boys to cry in public and the boys basic reaction was ‘of course not’ — so I said why do you think that? They’re like you just know, you can’t cry in public. They had already absorbed that I must not cry in public.

“After I said, let’s imagine your friend is really upset as their dog has died and they’ve come to school and they cry, would that be ok? They said yes it would as that is really sad. Unanimously they said they would check they’re ok. Once the boys heard from other boys it’s ok they all agreed. We need to talk and address these issues as our children have absorbed these idea.”