“You’re so strong!” and other ways we talk to our kids

A recent Walk-a-Thon at a local school

Recently I have been working in our public schools. Most of the time I am in primary schools. I love these kids – they are all trying to do their best, learn the rules, and understand where they fit in this world. Hard work!

It is especially tough when they also have to learn their multiplication tables, how to write an essay comparing and contrasting diverse topics, and the history of our country. I don’t know if you remember this time in your life, but this is a lot for kids to handle all at once.

Being around all these kids and all of this potential, I became curious. As many of you may know, my big question is why women are not reaching the same levels in corporate America as men. I wondered if there was anything I could see at this young age that could help to answer the question.

I also did some reading. It turns out that we start conditioning our children for their gender roles at a very young age. In fact, the minute they are born they start receiving messages about the “appropriate” way to act.

There are studies that show that we talk to babies differently the moment we become aware of their assigned gender. For example, an active baby in utero, when known to be a boy, is described as “active” or a “future sports star.” In contrast, we refer to female babies in emotional terms, saying things like “she must be upset” or “she’s feisty today!” And just to be clear, this is a generalization. This is not always the case, but it is generally the case.

This gendered talk continues throughout life. As young children, we talk more to our daughters than we do to our sons. We teach girls that showing emotion is okay, and our son’s that it is not. We caution our girls to be more careful, and tell our boys how strong they are. This ‘conditioning’ continues throughout their lives, often in small, subtle ways.

One day, while working with a group of clever first-graders, I happened upon an interesting and telling situation. I held up a picture that looked something like this:

I asked the kids, “What is this?” The answers, predictably, were almost a unanimous “Man.” The answer in the teacher’s manual agreed with them. I tried to get the students to give me other answers, but about the only other thing they came up with was “boy.”

The next picture looked like this:

And the kids shouted out before I could even ask them, “Mom!” This time the teacher’s manual disagreed (they were looking for the word ‘woman’). No matter what kind of prompting I gave them, the kids continued to insist that the only word for this person was “Mom.”

So already at this young age, we are conditioned to see gender roles. We see men as simply ‘men’ and women are assigned the role of ‘mother.’ Now, this could be just the case in this one class, in this one school, on this one particular day, but I don’t think so. I think this would likely happen over and over again in classrooms across the country – possibly around the world.

Here is something else I got curious about. When do we start making gendered choices about our career paths? I started asking every kid I could, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Here are some of the most common answers I got from the boys:

  • Policeman – grades 2,4,5
  • Fireman – grades 1,2,4
  • Duck – grade 2 (okay, this wasn’t common, but was super cute)
  • Engineer – grade 5
  • NFL Player – grades 4, 5
  • Soccer Player – grades 3, 4, 5
  • NBA Player – grade 5

Here are the most common answers I got from the girls:

  • Unicorn – grades 1, 2 (surprisingly common!)
  • Veterinarian – grade 2, 3, 4, 5
  • Lawyer – grades 4, 5
  • Mermaid – grades 2, 3
  • Shopper – grades 1, 2
  • Teacher – grades 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
  • Nurse – grade 5

This is clearly a completely unscientific sample. I offer it only as a potential insight into how early some of these ideas take shape. We tell our daughters “You can be anything you want!” Then day after day we present the idea that they should be caretakers and nurturers. We say “Reach for the stars!” while simultaneously cautioning them to be careful, to be polite, to smile.

We tell them we love them inside and out, that they are beautiful regardless of how they look (and we mean it!) but then day after day, we bombard them with ideas about their weight, their demeanor, their skin, their clothes, their smile.

We do our boys similar injustices. We need more male teachers, nurses, and unicorns. We need to teach them that it is okay to show emotions, and that violence is not the answer to everything. Or anything. Again, every day we tell them, “You can be anything you want!” while chastizing them for showing compassion or empathy.

I don’t have any answers for this. I don’t know how to fix this except to encourage everyone to think about the way you talk to children. Consider whether your well-intentioned comments and corrections might be limiting the childs future dreams and ambitions.

And as always, stay positive!

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