Stop teaching children gender stereotypes

On my most recent trip home to Louisville, I found myself in conversation with a very frustrated mother at my sister’s volleyball game.

A couple days ago, her second-grade daughter had come home from school quite upset. When the mother asked what was wrong, the daughter told her that the girls at school said she wasn’t allowed to like sharks because sharks were for boys.

That same week, her daughter’s grade school released shirts for their annual fundraiser. The girl shirts were printed in pink and purple. The boy shirts were printed in blue.

I quickly began to understand the mother’s frustration. She was trying to teach her daughter that boy animals and girl animals don’t exist. There are just animals. The same goes for colors. Yet her daughter continues to encounter gender stereotypes outside her home.

I’m sure no parent has ever explicitly said “only boys are allowed to like sharks,” to their child. But the environment that a child is exposed to is just as influential as her parents’ words. When a young girl goes shopping with her mom or dad at Target, and she passes by the boys clothing section, what does she see? Sharks. And trucks, and baseballs, and footballs, and cranes, and trains.

Related: Use ‘she’ as your go-to pronoun

She does not see pink or purple shirts. She does not find any glitter or sparkling accessories. And she gets it, she’s a smart girl.

Obviously, sharks are for boys because only boy’s clothes have sharks on them.

Children take cues from their environment and the people around them to formulate ideas that will help them navigate society. From an early age, children begin to group objects and behaviors into gendered categories based on what they see in the store or on television.

On a college campus with little to no interaction with younger generations, what can we do about this issue?

Start with your greeting. It’s so easy to greet a little girl with something like, “Oh, you are just so cute! I love your bows!” This perpetuates the idea that girls should be focused on appearance. Instead, try something like, “What’s your favorite book?” or, “Tell me about something you learned in school today.”

Greet her with anything that encourages her to think about something other than her appearance.

The same goes for young boys. Keep in mind that not all boys like sports. Or trucks. Or building things. The questions above work for both boys and girls.

College students can also help deconstruct gender stereotypes by giving gender-neutral gifts to younger siblings, cousins, nieces or nephews.

On a college campus where self-expression is generally accepted across genders, it’s hard to remember that many children still feel the need to change their behaviors or interests because they don’t align with conventional gender roles.

Until these stereotypes cease to exist, the most we can do as an older generation is to encourage children to challenge gender roles.