Reading aloud is one of the best things parents can do for their young children: teach them about the world and themselves, and even change the structure of their brains.
But a new study is a stark reminder that the “what” and the “how” matter. When researchers analyzed 247 books for children up to age 5 (including a mix of bestsellers and titles from “best of all time” lists), they found evidence of numerous gender stereotypes― for example, girls are better at language and boys are better at math.
Many stories also use gendered language and concepts. When girls are the protagonists, books are more likely to use words that convey affection or contain words like “explain” and “listen.” When boys are the protagonists, plots and language tend to focus more on labor, transportation, and tools.
“There is often a sort of cycle of learning gender stereotypes, with children learning stereotypes at a young age and then perpetuating them as they get older,” studies researcher Molly Lewis, a professor specializing in the departments of social and decision-making sciences and of psychology at Dietrich. College of Humanities and Social Sciences, said in a press release. “These books can be a vehicle for communicating information about gender. We may need to pay attention to what those messages might be and if they are messages that you even want to convey to children.
Lewis stressed that she and her co-researchers were not looking to destroy the families’ relationships with, say, Amelia Bedelia or Curious George. But the are simple steps caregivers can take to tackle sexist language and stereotypes in picture books. Here are a few.
Take a critical look at your child’s library
One of the best ways parents can offer a counterbalance to gender stereotypes in children’s books – and this applies to stereotypes of all kinds, really – is to ensure that children have access to books that are not sexist at home and in the library. The internet is full of lists of representative titles of children’s books, many of which center on LGBTQ characters. There are book finders and collections that can also help you.
In some gender-neutral books, a character’s gender or sexuality is central to the plot; other times it is not. These so-called “every child” books can also be powerful. The goal is to have a mix.
“This Is it that it doesn’t matter what books you read,” Jennifer Goldstein, book manager at A Kids Book About, told HuffPost. “Seeing a strong portrayal of someone like you in a proactive and positive role is a building block of your future self.”
Also, make sure you don’t just read books with male leads for boys and books with female leads for girls. The researchers behind the new study found that children are most often exposed to stereotypes about their own gender, suggesting parents don’t necessarily mix them up.
“It is important for all of us to see all kinds of people doing everyday and important things. This means all genders are visible, including cisgender, transgender and non-binary,” Goldstein said. “Reflect the news of humanity as a whole. It’s a lifelong skill and opens up the idea that we can all do anything.
Use questionable books as tools
Chances are your child will love a book or two that isn’t really open-minded about gender roles. But you don’t have to throw away books like these. Instead, use them. Books can be a great way to tackle important and tricky topics, especially for young children whose brains are developing millions of neural connections every second.
“Every children’s book is a moment of fun and a moment of education,” said Diane Ehrensaft, director of the Mental Health, Child and Adolescent Gender Center at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco.
They are not too young. The American Academy of Pediatrics points out that children learn a lot about what they think gender role behaviors are and what they “should” be, early on – like, at age 4. year.
So just notice the basic stereotypes and point them out.
“You can say something like, ‘I’m looking at this and wondering why Sylvia always has to wear pink? And why can’t Jeremy wear pink? said Ehrensaft. “You can just say, ‘I wonder why should that be? And why shouldn’t it be a popular color? »
Goldstein offered other questions that can help start discussions:
“Do you think your sex is important to be a doctor? A chef? Driving racing cars? Sew clothes? Why?”
“At school, does your gender help you learn the alphabet? Count to 10? Use a pencil? Read a book? Why?”
“With us, who does what? Why?”
Take out the post-its
Another option: turn it into a hands-on activity and use post-its so you and your child can rewrite the book together. If there’s something you’d like to emphasize or push back — like the same simple example of all the female characters in a book wearing pink, while all the boys are wearing blue — stick the Post-it note in the book. Maybe write a thought bubble in which a male character says, “Damn, I wish I was wearing pink sometimes.
“It’s a creative activity with your child, so you don’t have to put those books away. You can use them and modify them,” Ehrensaft said. Plus, it’s fun for kids to play author. And it gives them a sense of agency, Ehrensaft noted.
Of course, not every book has to be a teachable moment. None of the experts interviewed for this article argued that this was the case. Sometimes you and your toddler or preschooler are just going to want to cuddle up together before bedtime and get lost in a story without caring about the most important message. Do not force.
“You should never make a child read what you believe,” Ehrensaft said. You also shouldn’t lecture or argue with them if they have moments where they say yes, pink most definitely is the color of a girl. They are small and they are learning. Parents are also still learning.
“It’s a conversation starter,” Ehrensaft said.
The Huffington Gt