Caryl Rivers, one of the authors of “The Truth about Girls and Boys,” wrote a terrific post on BlogHer last week which received a good amount of buzz. Her article, “6 Ways You Can Avoid Gender Stereotypes of Your Kids,” highlighted practical strategies for parents backed by some solid research. The post dispelled myths about brain development and gender, encouraged parents to be mindful of their own expectations for their children’s interests and abilities, and promoted the importance of exposing children to a variety of experiences. These tactics to “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,” got me thinking about something else parents and teachers can do to combat gender stereotypes – we can minimize our use of gender labels and limit how often we use gender to organize groups.
In 2010, researchers at Penn State University wanted to see if purposefully making gender salient in preschool classrooms for two weeks would change kids’ attitudes about each other. They asked teachers to use gender specific language like, “Good morning boys and girls.” Or, “I need a girl to pass out markers.” They also asked teachers to physically organize their classrooms by gender with strategies such as creating girls’ and boys’ lines and displaying classroom work on separate girls’ and boys’ bulletin boards. While participating teachers were asked to make gender very prominent, they were also specifically instructed to treat each group equally and to avoid encouraging competition between boys and girls. What they discovered was that increasing the salience of gender in preschool classrooms resulted in children developing more highly gender-stereotyped attitudes and increased in-group and out-group bias (favoring one’s own gender group and avoiding the other gender group). All in just TWO WEEKS!
Time and again, research shows that the salience of “groups” (gender, race, eye color, t-shirt color…) in a child’s environment directly impacts the development and application of stereotypes and prejudices. The more conspicuous and prominent groups appear, the more likely it is that kids will attach unnecessary importance and meaning to these groups. And when it comes to gender, we adults often contribute to highlighting the categories of “boys” and “girls.” Now, I’m not suggesting we eliminate gender specific words or only speak in gender neutral terms, but I am suggesting that we challenge ourselves to avoid using gender when it isn’t necessary. We can greet our kids in ways that reflect commonalities – “Good morning ___everyone, kiddos, folks, scholars, shining stars__.” We can call upon kids in ways that highlight personal characteristics – “I need someone with ___an April birthday, a pet dog, laced shoes, the letter ‘o’ in their name__ to pass out markers.” And we can definitely come up with more creative groupings than “boys and girls.”
So in the spirit of two-week experiments, how about we challenge ourselves to a quick study of our own? Over the next few days (or even few hours), try to use gender labels as infrequently as possible. See how easy or difficult this proves to be, and report back! It might be challenging at first, but this test may become rewarding as you force yourself to be more creative with your language.
* Abstract – Differing Levels of Gender Salience in Preschool Classrooms: Effects on Children’s Gender Attitudes and Intergroup Bias Lacey J. Hilliard and Lynn S. Liben The Pennsylvania State University