Have you ever spoken to a six year old girl? Seemingly the epitome of confidence,the world is her oyster, and she believes she can be anything:
A ballet dancer;
All at the SAME TIME.
Moreover, young girls frequently do better than boys in elementary school, where their abilities to sit still and follow rules often makes their teachers give them plenty of gold stars.
The traditional thinking is that young girls’ confidence doesn’t drop until they hit puberty. But something else is happening during the ages of five to seven, as children develop cognitively, becoming aware that others are evaluating their behavior.
As a well designed experiment found, at five years of age, girls say that both genders are smart, but by six years old, they classify boys as belonging to the “really really smart” category at a higher rate. Thus, what children see and hear during this developmental stage shapes thinking in ways that adults may not always see or recognize.
In fact, even at younger ages, children quickly absorb the stereotypes we communicate about activities and skills associated with each gender. Children learn in the context of their social and cultural milieu and the messages they are given (from parents, media, teachers and other socialization agents) promote gender identities, sometimes with stereotypes attached to them.
The good news is that in the US, things may be starting to change. One study found that when asked to draw a scientist, kids in the United States increasingly draw women. Back in the sixties and seventies, when asked the same question, less than one percent of children drew a female scientist. Today the average is twenty eight percent. But still, as kids get older, they begin to draw more men in this role. At five or six girls draw the same number of men and women, but by seven and eight they begin to draw more men.
So there is still plenty of work to do. Luckily research has helped us become more aware of these biases. Moreover, companies who create media and product for kids are helping change entrenched patterns. Many companies are focusing on creating strong female characters, and their audience is responding – even boys!
What can you do to help encourage your child to dream big and help your girl recognize that boys and girls are equally “really really smart? One answer: Play! Play helps girls understand the possibilities because this is when children practice the gendered behaviors they see from role models. And young kids like to play with the objects that will teach them the most.
Here are a few ways caregivers can support their children so they start to internalize gender equality:
Choose media that highlight strong female role models.
Why? Because research shows that representation shapes the way we think.
Highlight real life female role models, including yourself if you are a woman.
Why? Because connecting to the real world helps make children understand what’s truly possible. And young girls focus on what their female caregiver is doing.
Encourage boys to diversify their play patterns. Support their play with dolls, and help them recognize that women are equally brilliant to men.
Why? Because until we recognize that boys can enjoy more “feminine” pursuits, masculine stereotypes of strength and brilliance will persist and undermine progress for women.
Yalda Uhls, Founder and Executive Director, Center for Scholars and Storytellers
Disclosure: This blog post was written independently and reflects the author’s own views. It was written in support of the Dream Gap project and was paid for by Barbie.