If you consider yourself a progressive parent, you’ve probably been riding the gender-neutrality train for a while, making a concentrated effort to let your boys and girls be … well, whatever it is they want to be.
For everyone else, the rise of headline-grabbing movements like the Women’s March and #MeToo has made discussions around sexism, and the effect it can have on their children’s future, part of the broader parenting zeitgeist. Which is a good thing: Research has shown that children raised in egalitarian households are less aware of gender stereotyping at age 4 than kids whose parents endorse more traditional gender roles.
By now, parents of all stripes pretty much know that old-school fairy-tales and video games can breed gender bias. But there is still much more moms and dads can do to keep their children from picking up on the social cues that lead to gender inequalities. Here, salient advice for raising kids who will push back against sexism, at any age.
THE EARLIEST YEARS: BIRTH TO AGE 2
What’s Happening: Babies’ brains are sponges, but not haphazard ones. Little minds rely on select experiences to fine-tune their social navigation. “Even before infants are able to physically mimic behaviors, areas of their brain are ‘rehearsing’ and mimicking behaviors they observe,” says Dr. Laura Jana, a pediatrician and the author of “The Toddler Brain.” “Social interaction between babies and caring, responsive adults — most often their parents — influences the connecting of neurons in the developing brain.”
What You Can Do: For starters, keep you baby registry gender neutral. Otherwise you’re pretty much encouraging stereotypes right out of the womb. That’s not to say that dressing your daughter in a pink romper dooms her as a future feminist, but a playroom full of kitchen sets and dolls does send a certain message. Even subtle behaviors can impact your child’s future interests and actions. “Avoid defaulting to stereotypical gender-specific praise and descriptions,” Jana says. For instance, girls shouldn’t always be “pretty” and “sweet,” and boys don’t get to be “brave” and “strong” by default; by the time babies reach their first birthday, they’re already paying attention to these kinds of loaded words.
THE PRESCHOOL YEARS: AGES 2 TO 4
What’s Happening: Toddlers have been shown to demonstrate a preference for their own gender. They also tend to attribute more positive qualities to kids of the same gender and more negative traits to those of the other gender. “Figuring out categories is as fundamental as you can get in terms of cognitive processes,” says Lise Eliot, a professor of neuroscience at Rosalind Franklin University and the author of “Pink Brain, Blue Brain.” “It helps organize your experiences if things are similar, or not.”
What You Can Do: Be mindful of gender bias come bedtime. Almost 60 percent of main characters in children’s storybooks are male (or male animals), according to a 2011 study in the journal Gender & Society. “Female underrepresentation in children’s books may contribute to a sense of importance and wide-ranging possibilities among boys, and consequently, a sense of unimportance and more limited possibilities among girls,” says study author Janice McCabe, an associate professor of sociology at Dartmouth College.
Even well-meaning moms and dads may be desensitized to the over-dominance of male characters, especially if they are reading to a boy. In wanting their child to relate to the story, parents often don’t realize there’s a lack of female characters. “Discuss the absence of female characters with children as young as 2,” says McCabe. “By doing so, the inequality will not remain invisible, and you’ll also encourage critical thinking and media literacy.”
The prevalence of male-centered storytelling could be driven by the notion that girls are interested in boy things, but boys aren’t interested in girl things — and that’s unfortunate. “Parents are afraid [boys] will lose something by being associated with girls so it’s not as OK for boys to read books about girls, as opposed to the other way around,” says Eliot.
But that ultimatum is simply not true. Instead, try expanding your narratives. NationSwell’s suggestions: “Interstellar Cinderella,” about a futuristic heroine who prefers a wrench to a tiara; “Little Feminist,” a mini board-book series depicting notable femmes like Frida Kahlo and Rosa Parks; “Made by Raffi,” a tale of a shy, but ingenious boy whose knitting skills save the day; and “Clive and His Babies,” which tells the story of a boy and his two dolls (Clive’s adventures continue in a series of books about his bags, hats and art).
THE GRADE-SCHOOL YEARS: AGES 5 TO 12
What’s Happening: While gender stereotyping seems to peak between ages 5 and 6, just two years later ideas regarding gender roles become less rigid. That’s because at this age, youngsters tend to process information on a case-by-case basis, instead of the overarching group stereotype honed in their preschool years. By the time a child is 7, she or he realizes that femininity and masculinity are not hard rules assigned by gender.
What You Can Do: Step it up as a role model. “Children in this age group are much more focused on their own world — their family and their parents’ ideas — than the external world,” says Richard Horowitz, a parenting and family coach in Palm Harbor, Fla. “It is crucial to shape views and attitudes during the elementary years.”
But you can’t reinforce gender-agnostic values part-time. Take each parent’s job, for example. No matter if one folds laundry at home while the other trades stocks from a fancy corner office, treating each path with dignity ensures your kids won’t think one is more important than the other. When alternate opinions and media try to interfere, back up your assertions: While watching TV together, for instance, call out blatant sexist jokes (network sitcoms like “Modern Family,” “2 Broke Girls” and “The Big Bang Theory” are all guilty). “If kids can’t talk about stereotypes with their parents,” Horowitz says, “then they are more likely to be manipulated by mass culture.”
THE TEENAGE YEARS: AGES 13 TO 17
What’s Happening: The hormone soup is brewing, and it’s contributing to more than just teens slamming their bedroom doors and yelling, “Leave me alone!” Puberty is also a time when the feel-good oxytocin shoots up. This hormone boosts your kids’ proclivity for social bonding and cements positive memories from social interactions.
What You Can Do: Encourage the socialization that teenagers crave, including their interest in the opposite sex. “Chauvinism begins with [gender] segregation,” says Eliot. “Each group starts objectifying the opposite gender and that’s where stereotypes come into play.” What’s more, when a boy doesn’t see girls in charge — whether that’s as the female president of his civics club or the de facto leader of his social group — he is more likely to balk at female leadership as an adult. Says Eliot, “If boys don’t have this experience, a female leader just ‘doesn’t feel right’ to them.”