Preschoolers and gender stereotypes: help!
September 3, 2013 8:08 AM   Subscribe

How do you teach your young children not to internalize the sexism in our culture?

My 4-year-old son, who goes to preschool full time, has started to make gender-based distinctions that I find troubling. For example, he will say to me "You can't play with that, that's only for boys," or "Your favorite color can't be blue because you're a girl." I have told him that my favorite color has always been blue, but he argues that that's impossible because I'm a girl and girls like pink. Another example: he will say that he doesn't like girls (he cant say why), but in reality some of his best friends are girls and in fact he plays with them all the time.

What he sees around him in his environment does not match up to the boys=blue, girls=pink gender divide: we live in a major city and he is around all kinds of people all the time. The daycare and preschool he has attended so far have been diverse (LGBT households, kids from different countries and backgrounds, kids who speak different languages, etc.) His preschool does not reinforce gender stereotypes in their curriculum or activities. Both my husband and I work full-time and I have the slightly more demanding job, we each do half the housework and childcare, etc.

This has started pretty recently, and I think he's just trying things out that he's heard from other kids, but I'm looking for suggestions for how other parents of young kids have dealt with this in a positive and effective way.
posted by agent99 to Society & Culture (23 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Just challenge his assertions, age appropriately.

"But, Katie is a girl. You like to play with her, don't you?"

"We'll, I'm a female and I like the color blue. So what makes more sense? That colors are pretty and we can pick the ones we like? Or that I must be a boys disguise because I like blue?"

After a while, this will pass.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:13 AM on September 3, 2013 [8 favorites]

As RB says this will pass. My almost 5 year old went through this for a few weeks last year and then it ended. Now he is back to playing with 'girl' stuff.
Just respond with logic and move forward.
posted by k8t at 8:14 AM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Your favorite color can't be blue because you're a girl." I have told him that my favorite color has always been blue, but he argues that that's impossible because I'm a girl and girls like pink.

Make your POV (without saying you're right and your son/the other kids are wrong) much more positive than the other POV. "Whoever told you that is still learning, and won't they be excited when they realize they can choose their favorite from EVERY COLOR instead of just from some!" Don't stress about it though. It's inevitable but not permanent.

Says the mom whose college-freshman son has a pink mirror on the back of his bedroom door.
posted by headnsouth at 8:17 AM on September 3, 2013 [19 favorites]

I think I've read a few times that kids that age sort of go through a phase of "[foo] is for girls, and [baz] is for boys" in part because they're first becoming aware that gender even is, like, a thing, so they're sort of figuring out the "rules". I remember being about five and seeing a guy with long hair and a beard once and asking my mother, "is that person a cross between a man and a lady?"*

Just responding with logic is usually the best approach, yeah. Have a listen to the "Free to Be You and Me" album for how they say things - it's full of a lot of "people think [foo] is for girls, but I'm a girl and I like [baz] and that's okay" or "people think boys shouldn't [schmeh], but it's really okay for everyone" kinds of messages. Just re-iterating that to kids sinks in, and they get over it when they get older.

* I do understand that technically we are all crosses between a man and a lady. Again, I was five.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:19 AM on September 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

Kids don't start to reason until they're about 5 years old, so trying a logical approach is pretty much pointless.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:19 AM on September 3, 2013

I think with a stubborn little kid you are best off to sort of "peacefully ignore" it and save the teaching for a separate time when he is not already primed to disagree with you just because. By that I mean just a simple, "Oh, well, I don't think that. Now about those blocks..." or "I like to play with boys and girls, now here's your juice..." or whatever, and then use other teachable moments and teaching by example (as it sounds you already do on a regular basis) to teach gender equality. If you get into a debate about it with a 4-year-old, you are unlikely to win, and making a big deal out of it just inflates its importance in his head.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:21 AM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I tell my 4-year-old that colors and toys (etc) are for everyone. So if she says, "only boys can play with trains" I say, "no, toys are for everyone" and leave it at that. Last year was really the height of her saying constantly that boys like this and girls like that and I know that it is developmentally normal, and so constant gentle repeating of "colors are for everyone" (the same way I constantly repeat "don't take toys out of your brother's hands" and "wait your turn") some of it has slowly started to sink in.
posted by sutel at 8:26 AM on September 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

Rock Steady: I think with a stubborn little kid

I feel I should add, I'm not trying to insult your little kiddo. I'm just assuming he is as stubborn as my little one was at that age.

posted by Rock Steady at 8:27 AM on September 3, 2013

Oh, duh, I forgot to mention how my mother answered my "is that person a cross between a man and a lady" question - she just said "no, that's a man who just has long hair." You know, matter-of-fact. She didn't try to Make It A Teaching Moment, she just corrected my confusion without being a Thing, and I got it. If I'd gone on to say something like "but isn't long hair for ladies?" she'd probably just have said "no, men can have long hair too if they want".

I think people talking about "logic" may mean more like "facts" - rather than getting into Gender Politics or anything like that, just give them facts -

"pink is for girls, not blue!"
"Actually, girls can like blue things too if they want."

"STAR WARS is for boys!"
"I'm a girl, and I like STAR WARS. Anyone can like STAR WARS if they want."

"Dolls are for girls!"
"Boys can play with dolls too if they want to, it's okay."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:28 AM on September 3, 2013 [5 favorites]

. . . he has started to make gender-based distinctions that I find troubling.

Kids that age are obviously in the early stages of trying to comprehend the world, and doing so with limited logical abilities - clumsy, inflexible dichotomies are completely natural, and not something to fret over too much.

You're right that you need to challenge and problemetize them to help him learn, though. We have a 2.5 year old, and my partner is a teacher at a progressive preschool - some strategies we've taken from there:

1. As you're doing, consistently - and gently - point out where his assumptions do not match the reality that he sees day to day. Make it part of a conversation rather than a direct challenge (which will trigger testing behavior).

2. Choose media for him that doesn't reinforce mainstream gender stereotypes.

3. Since you and your husband share housework, include him as a helper in tasks that do not map to traditional gender roles. This past weekend, for example, my son helped me cook dinner and vacuum, and helped his mom fix her bike. Mix it up.

Nthing that this will pass as he gets to be capable of more sophisticated logic.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:30 AM on September 3, 2013 [7 favorites]

What is he saying so "wrong" that it requires challenge by you?

There's a mismatch. Debating adult matters of gender with your 4 year old is more about you than him. He can't appreciate the nuanced importance of what your conveying at an age when the very differences between gender are first being observed.

Save this for a future time - let him simply share his observances as a discovering 4 year old kid.
posted by Kruger5 at 8:33 AM on September 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

He's just trying to figure out how stuff works. When this was coming up more in our house we'd just underscore that it's okay for boys to love pink and girls to love blue, and if she loves pink some other girl might not and that's fine etc. etc. (Or even "boys like cool things and girls like pretty things" --- grrrr)

Or, when I was asked about this one: I'm a woman, I wear make up, I like it and think it's fun--but not all women wear make-up and some can't stand it, and there are even some men who like to wear make-up. Boys and girls get to choose the things they like and the important thing is to do what you like to do and expect that others will do the same.

But I really do think it's mainly trying to figure out how the rules work in life, so absolutes (A STOP SIGN MEANS STOP) are comforting to them.

Introducing nuance is a slow process. I agree that there's not a whole lot of logic going on at that age. I'd just treat it lightly and directly and move right on.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:35 AM on September 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

How do you teach your young children not to internalize the sexism in our culture?

Keep exposing them to a diverse population and non sexist elements, it'll work out in the end. Gently point out how wrong the points are that he's brought up and let him ponder that. You can't always make a kid see reason immediately, but you can lead them to it. Think long term and don't sweat the small stuff too much.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:39 AM on September 3, 2013

Best answer: My mom, also a teacher, responded to some of my oddball theories with something like, "Really? That's interesting! Are you sure?" She wasn't directly challenging me, but her surprise and curiosity undermined my confidence in what I was saying and got me to think harder about it.
posted by jon1270 at 8:43 AM on September 3, 2013 [19 favorites]

There's no one thing you can say to keep your kid's head in the right place on gender any more than there's one thing you can say that will instantly potty train them. The key is patiently, without fail, addressing anything problematic related to these issues the very second they come up. In other words, you're going to have to say the kinds of things Ruthless Bunny, sutel, and EmpressCallipygos said... around 250 times.

I also make an effort to keep my son watching a mix of supposed "girls" and "boys" programming, so that he can see interesting characters of both genders and not develop an aversion for "girl stuff." In addition to watching the occasional superhero cartoon, he checks out My Little Pony, for instance.

Actually, on the cartoon front: SheZow is effectively a continuous series of gags sending up what is/is not boy stuff and girl stuff.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:32 AM on September 3, 2013

As a mom of all boys this is pretty normal at this age. I agree with the low key message of "are you sure"? My kids all did this in some form or another. It will pass - look my military minded kid let his gf paint his toenails recently. It was pretty awesome.
posted by lasamana at 9:36 AM on September 3, 2013

jon1270's mom's approach was a lot like my mother's. It was almost like she was giving me permission to challenge the playground status quo in my own mind, knowing I probably would if the seed was planted.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:38 AM on September 3, 2013

Agreed with everyone else that for him it's basically a process of figuring out what rules are Rules and what rules are Opinions and what rules are Absolute Hogwash. (Also, when you think about it, for concrete thinkers like preschoolers, the physical differences between boys and girls are not frequently visible, so figuring out why boys are boys and girls are girls is kind of tough.) My son is still on the young side for this but when it's come up we've been treating it like other incorrect twists of logic, and keeping my own social judgeyness out of it.

"No, we can't go see dinosaurs because there aren't any. It must sure seem like there are, because you have these books and TV shows that show what they look like, but there are no living ones left. Confusing, huh?"

"I know that you and [boy] really love playing with trucks, but that doesn't mean that it's just a game for boys. We've seen some boy and some girl construction workers working on the building across the street, I bet all of them like trucks!"
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:22 AM on September 3, 2013

Four-year-olds are insistently dogmatic to an extent that makes Fred Phelps look flexible.

He'll get over it, but before that happens he is going to disagree and disagree and disagree with your reiteration of the obvious flaws in his reasoning in an increasingly desperate attempt to avoid having to give up his seductively simple rules.

Hang in there. Keep calm and carry on feeding him counterexamples.

Now is also a pretty good time to start exposing him to some useful, solid rules that really do always work - such as "I can enjoy somebody's company and value them as a friend without having to agree with everything they say or approve of everything they do" - to help head off the worst effects of the next busted thing he's going to learn from his peers: the in-group/out-group distinction.
posted by flabdablet at 12:18 PM on September 3, 2013

I agree that they're just trying to figure out what the rules are. I will never forget the way my 5-year-old leaned over to me in a restaurant to discuss the interracial couple at the next table, apparently more than a little alarmed. "Dad! They DON'T MATCH!" I just said "They don't have to match, son" and we moved on.
posted by Mr. Justice at 12:21 PM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

What you do is constantly remind them of the way you see things. One of the various ways you can do that is by reading books with a helpful message (two I can recommend are The Sissy Duckling and Cinder Edna).
posted by Dansaman at 5:07 PM on September 3, 2013

I will sometimes ask her to show her work - "why is that a boy's toy?" and that can open up a lot of the thought process for her and for me.

Sometimes it's an observational hypothesis ("BoyCousin plays with it, therefore it is a boy thing") in which case we talk about how different people play with different things and it doesn't mean that girls cannot or will not play with that toy.

Sometimes it's a directly learned 'rule' ("BoyCousin said I can't play with it because I'm a girl") in which case I've refined my response to "Well, he's wrong, and that's a mean thing to say to someone". This one also sometimes gets garbled in that she's picked it up from someone (usually a well-meaning relative) but instead of being a directly stated 'rule' it's been an off-hand comment or watching how they react to gender performance by her or her cousins. So when BoyCousin cries, he is treated differently to her. When she yells, she is treated differently to him. When he hits, or wears pink, or she wears jeans, or she wears pink and so on. So it's a 'rule' but it's one she's inferred from watching our interactions and she tends to be unable to verbalise it very well so it can take a little bit to piece together what she's trying to say.

Sometimes it's an extrapolated observation ("Mostly only the boys play with that toy") in which case we talk about how different people are, and that sometimes people are jerks and will try and make things only for boys or girls, which isn't fair because all toys are fun to someone.
posted by geek anachronism at 7:20 PM on September 3, 2013

My parents tried to raise me and my brother pretty gender neutral, and in a lot of ways they succeeded, BUT (my two cents) don't overcompensate either. I didn't like math or gym and this was constantly being treated like a learned gender role rather than a personal preference. Otherwise (judging from growing up with my much younger brother), Nthing the idea that he is trying to understand the "rules" and you can gently problematize without worrying too much.
posted by sarahkeebs at 5:45 PM on September 10, 2013

« Older He left me. How do I make the nights bearable in...   |   What's the best way to darken an east facing... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.