How to Teach Kids About Sexism

How to Teach Kids About Sexism
Illustration: Angelica Alzona

Watching Kamala Harris sworn in as our country’s first female vice president (not to mention our first vice president of colour) last week felt like a triumphant moment for many women and girls. It was also a reminder of how much sexism, gender discrimination, and misogyny women have to overcome in order to achieve such a feat. And it’s a reminder that we need to be teaching our kids about those issues, starting from an early age and continuing throughout their childhood.

Gender stereotypes start developing at an early age

Dr. Erin Pahlke, an associate professor of psychology at Whitman College, tells me that kids as young as two or three years old not only label and categorise people by gender, but they’ve already begun to develop gender stereotypes. This happens partly because of the explicit labels we all use on a daily basis, such as a preschool teacher saying, “Good morning, boys and girls,” or a parent saying, “Did you have fun playing with the little boy at the playground today?” And it happens partly by noticing the way colours, clothing, and toys are so often differentiated by gender.

“Kids are picking up on that information, and developmental models suggest that once gender becomes psychologically salient — so once kids notice, ‘Oh, this is a category that matters and that we should be paying attention to’ — they then work to figure out what [characteristics] go with girls and with boys,” says Pahlke, whose research focuses on how children and adolescents form their views of gender and race. “And there are a lot of cues in our environment that provide kids with information about classic gender stereotypes.”

That’s because even though you, as a parent, might buy gender-neutral clothing and toys, and read them stories full of strong female characters in positions of power or leadership, that’s not what they’re seeing when they turn on the TV or step outside your home. One trip down the toy aisle in Walmart or Target will demonstrate how colours and pictures are used to categorise toys as being either for boys or for girls. It’s not long before kids start to internalise that traits like being nice or sweet are applied more often to girls, while boys are more physical; they receive the signals that women are more often in charge of cleaning the home, while men cut the grass; and they notice that the “leaders” — in their schools, in their community, in politics — are most often male.

“They learn the rules early on, and unfortunately, that happens regardless of what you as a parent hope to teach your child about gender,” Pahlke says. “It’s so ubiquitous in our culture, it’s so pervasive, that kids will develop the stereotypes just by living in our society.”

That’s why, she says, it’s important to directly talk to kids about sexism from an early age. If you want them to recognise gender bias, you need to teach them about gender bias.

“I think there are some parallels with regard to race,” Pahlke says. “If you want kids to recognise racial bias, you need to talk to them about race. In the same way that a ‘colorblind’ perspective doesn’t work, a gender-blind perspective doesn’t work in terms of teaching kids about sexism. You have to actually talk about issues regarding gender bias if you want them to learn about sexism.”

Define “sexism” for them

Pahlke says she and her colleagues have conducted studies in which they’ve gone into kindergarten classrooms to teach kids explicitly about sexism. They first give the kids the word and then define it what it means — treating someone unfairly or making a judgement about someone because of their gender.

They’d give examples of this, such as if someone says only boys or only girls can play a certain game. Or saying a girl has a “boy hair cut.” Or that some people think boys should be doctors, while girls should be nurses. And then they’d work with the kids to come up with responses they can use if they hear statements like this, such as, “That’s not fair, that’s sexist: Boys and girls can play every game.”

“I think it takes explicit instruction that this is what some people think or this is what some people say, and that’s not right, and if you hear someone say or do something like that, this is what we could say back,” Pahlke says. “And then practice it with them.”

Pointing it out isn’t enough

Many kids, by the time they’re in early elementary school, know there has never been a female president of the United States. But, Pahlke says, if we don’t talk about the cause of that — gender discrimination — they are likely to draw their own incorrect conclusions, such as because girls aren’t smart enough to be president, or because boys read more books, or because women don’t want to be president.

So when pointing out real world examples that highlight the result of gender discrimination, it’s important to also link those examples back to their root cause.

“If I just say to my kid, ‘Oh, I wonder why there aren’t more women on the school board,’ and I stopped there, it’s possible that my kid will come away from that interaction thinking, ‘Oh, it’s because women aren’t good leaders,’” Pahlke says. “So I think it is important to point it out, and then I think it’s important to have follow-up conversations about issues related to discrimination.”

As kids grow up, we should empower boys and girls alike to look for instances of sexism and gender discrimination — and speak up when they see them. And both boys and girls should be encouraged to actively support women’s equality. Bonding with your daughter by, say, attending a women’s march is great — but it’s even better to bring her dad and her brother along, too.

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