Young people increasingly learn what gender means – what it means to be a man or a woman – via their screens. This is particularly dangerous since children, at younger ages, accept the assumptions about gender that they see online without questioning them, and begin to think that the gender roles they see are normal. Even if your family does not subscribe to these roles, the online world bombards children with specific ideas and messages about gender that can be very difficult to dismantle or change.
You might wonder if the media has anything to do with gender at all. Consider these facts:
- Only four Disney films feature women speaking over 60% of the dialogue: Inside Out, Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent, and Sleeping Beauty.
- A study on the number of words spoken by male and female characters over 2000 screenplays found that less than one quarter had about equal speaking lines for men and women. More than half the screenplays had 60 to 90% of the lines spoken by male characters.
- A study on gender in advertising found that only 3% of advertising showed women as leaders, 2% conveyed them as intelligent, and only in 1% did they come off as interesting.
The problem with your children being exposed to poor gender representation and gender stereotypes is that they are everywhere all the time! These stereotyped messages in the media, through television, movies, magazine, music videos, advertising, video games, social media, and more, can over time influence children to adopt similarly narrow ideas of gender roles in society. In fact, a report on gender stereotypes found that they were often ingrained in children because the messages are timed for the precise moment in a child’s development when they are most receptive to their influence.
What are common gender stereotypes?
For young girls, the messages they face about gender still prioritise their beauty instead of their brains. For example, the media may:
- Praise women who are thin and fashionable, and put down those who have other body shapes and styles
- Treat women and girls as sexual objects
- Portray women's key role in life as the caretaker or homemaker
- Show women as dramatic, catty, and over-emotional
For boys, these messages may be more nuanced, but they are just as loud and clear. The media may:
- Idealise a buff and toned body shape
- Stigmatise boys who show emotion instead of bravado and "grit"
- Depict boys who act recklessly, even at the expense of others, as cool
I don't know how to start the conversation. What can I say?
Begin the discussion by understanding what your child thinks of gender, and how far this depends on their media consumption. Ask questions like:
- What do you think a stereotype is?
- What are typical examples of a stereotype?
- What do you think of as girly or boyish things?
- Where do you think these ideas come from? Magazines, Instagram, movies, cartoons? Ask them to be specific.
Then, ask them to think about how much they have internalized these stereotypes, and challenge them. Ask them questions like:
- If you as a girl/boy did not act in a typically girly/boyish way, what would your friends call you?
- If your friend who was a girl/boy acted in a way that was not girly/boyish, what would you think of them?
- How do you think people feel when they are called names for acting differently?
- Why do you think people call others names for acting differently?
- Why do you post those photos on social media? Help your child develop a motivation that comes internally from themselves instead of what they think makes them externally attractive to other people.
Point out the value of things besides someone's appearance and superficial qualities: this is important in daily life. Instead of commenting on how beautiful a family friend has gotten over the years, ask her about her studies and CCAs. Similarly, instead of commenting on how fit someone has gotten after NS, ask him what he is looking forward to in the future and what he does in his free time. These will show your child your interest in a person beyond their appearance.
My child is 2 to 6 years
At this age, your child will likely:
- Learn their gender identities
- Learn stereotypes about the types of activities, characteristics, and skills linked to each gender
- Start playing ‘according’ to their gender, like girls cleaning, cooking, and taking care of the baby or boys driving and building
You will need to be very specific and explicit when talking about gender to your child. You will also need to take an active role in finding content that is suitable and positive for your child to view.
- Curate positive content: find content that shows people breaking away from traditional stereotypes! This is very important because recent studies of 4-year-old children found that, the more TV they watched, the more likely they were to believe that boys are better than girls. Look up shows and films before your children watch them to find reviews about how good they are. Shows like Julie’s Greenroom, Doc McStuffins, Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood, Sesame Street and Little Einstein’s are great examples.
- Co-view content: watch films and shows alongside your children so that you can point out when characters show different ways to ‘do’ gender, like if a show has a mom who works full-time and a stay-at-home dad.
- Divide the work at home: the same study found that girls were more likely to think boys are better if their mothers do more housework at home. Make sure both of you are splitting up the housework, such as cooking, cleaning, helping your children bath and eat, or putting them to bed, so that your children have good role models.
- Give them more role models: point out everyday heroes to your children who show that there are different ways to be a boy and a girl. For example, point out that firefighters can be women and nurses can be men.
- Buy different toys: encourage your child to play what they want, which includes letting your daughter buy action figures or cars, and your son Barbies or cooking sets.
- Have lots of friends: encourage your child to be friends with people from other genders. Being in mixed-gender groups is good for creating cross-gender friendships, and showing them that boys and girls are more alike than different!
My child is 7 to 12 years
At this age, your child will likely:
- Give certain qualities to each gender, such as women are more emotional and men are more aggressive
- Associate each gender with specific jobs and subjects, like women with the arts and men with science
- Play only within their gender
This is an important point in your child’s development, as they child become old enough to start discussions on what gender means to them while you still have control over the content your child is exposed to. Things you can do include:
- Curate better content: look for media that features more non-stereotyped characters, like men who are open with their emotions and women in non-traditional subjects/occupations. Shows like The Kicks, Project MC2, and Master Chef Junior are great examples.
- Co-view content with them: point out when characters defy gender stereotypes and when they reinforce them, so that you have an on-going discussion about the topic. Bring attention to characters who are important in a story because of what they do instead of what they look like.
- Divide the work at home: be good role models in the home by ensuring that both you and your partner split the housework, such as cooking, cleaning, helping your children bath and eat, or putting them to bed.
- Have lots of friends: if your child goes to a single-gender school, try introduce opportunities for them to make friends with people of other genders, such as through tuition, swimming classes, or even a mixed-gender sport.
- Talk to them: ask your child what they think a stereotype means, for some examples of what ‘girly’ or ‘manly’ are, and where they think these ideas come from. Push them to challenge these. Ask them if a boy or girl they knew acted differently from a typical ‘boyish’ or ‘girlish’ way, what would they think? How would they be treated by others? Importantly, how should they be treated? It is important to walk the line between encouraging them to come to their own decisions and steering them towards the right ones.
At ages of 13 to 17
At this age, your child will likely:
- Want to choose their own media, most likely things aimed at older children or adults
- Feel uncomfortable about the changes their body is going through
- Feel pressure to fit into the established gender norms
- Want to look and appear a particular way to others
- Begin thinking about dating and how to behave in romantic or sexual situations
At this age, teenagers are making up their own opinions on issues such as gender and what it means. Mixed gender friendships also become a lot more common. Teenagers become more concerned about what they should do in the future as well as their appearance. As a parent, it can feel like you have little impact on their opinions. However, parents still play an integral role in their understanding of things.
- Find good content: your teenager might not want to watch content with you still, but in the off-chance that they do, look out for shows and movies that features boys and men expressing their emotions constructively and being kind and vulnerable. Shows like This Is Us or movies like The King’s Speech are good examples. Also find female characters who are outspoken and follow non-stereotypical goals and paths. Crime shows featuring women as police or profilers are good examples, such as Bones or Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
- Encourage your child to think about these issues: if you are watching content with them, or if they mention something, ask them to think about the stereotypes in their media, and how they might create power structures.
- Point to real-life examples: give examples of people you know who have defied gender stereotypes to make their path, such as women who own their own businesses or men who work as nurses.
- Compliment them differently: when praising your child, use compliments that are not just from their appearance (especially for your daughters) or their strength (especially for your sons).
- Talk to them: ask your teenager what they think of gender stereotypes and where they think these ideas come from. Push them to challenge these. Ask them if a boy or girl they knew acted differently from a typical ‘boyish’ or ‘girlish’ way, what would they think? How would they be treated by others? Importantly, how should they be treated? It is important to walk the line between encouraging them to come to their own decisions and steering them towards the right ones.