girls

The Power of Talking to Kids

“Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”

-Maya Angelou


I have spent a lot of years as an executive in children’s content at public broadcasters. I’ve interviewed lots of young girls, and talked to them about many topics. Recently-with the Dream Gap research from Barbie- I wanted to chat with more girls. Such interesting research! Mostly, I talked to young girls I know, to see what they thought of the results of this research: that by the age of 5, girls begin to lose self-confidence in their intelligence and abilities. This was more than for my job, it was for me, other women, and girls for the future! A lot at stake.

As always, the girls had a lot to say, and I loved how quickly they came up with reasons for the results. Two young girls said that boys see boys when they watch TV...that most lead characters on shows are boys, making boys seem like they are smarter, because they are leaders. The girls are right. In North America, 65% of protagonists in kid’s shows are boys, with girls only being the main character about 35% of the time.

I spent last weekend with one of my best friends, her young daughter and her daughter’s bestie. The girls spent almost the whole time choreographing dance routines, so I wasn’t sure if they would be interested in this research. But it only took them a moment to talk about how they mostly hear about men in school. The historical leaders, presidents, prime ministers, heroes, astronauts and other people they are told about. They don’t hear about famous women nearly as much. They said they want to hear more about women leaders!

On my way home from the weekend away, I chatted with two 10 year old girls on my street about The Dream Gap Project. They agreed that girls would feel smarter if they saw more role models, and felt strongly about changing the names of all the schools. “They are all named after men,” one said. “That’s why we have to fight for girl power, ” said the other.

I felt so girl powered up after the weekend that I just wanted to say “Thanks, Barbie” for doing the research that can get lots of girls talking. All good movements start from the ground up, so we need our girls to feel empowered. Now we just have to find ways to make girls more present on tv shows, in school, and at the forefront of the world around them. I’m totally in and feel like I have to do my part. Girl power, indeed!

Because we love talking to kids, here’s a video we shot at the Center for Scholars and Storytellers with boys and girls reacting to the Dream Gap research.

Directed by Eliza Rocco

Kim Wilson, Co-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.

To learn more about Barbie's work to close the Dream Gap click here.

Media and Relational Aggression Among Youth

Media and Relational Aggression Among Youth

As I greeted my fourth grader off the bus the other day, we began our regular after-school chat between mouthfuls of his afternoon snack.

“What happened at school today?” I ask. “Madison got in trouble with the teacher for being mean to Emily,” he says.

“Oh. What was Madison doing?”

“Well, we were playing this game at recess, but Madison kept changing the rules so that Emily would always lose, or would not know how to play. Emily started to cry and then the teachers came and sent Madison inside.”

It sounds like my son has a mean girl in his class. These types of “mean girl” behaviors—social exclusion, and name calling---are known as relational aggression. I’ve spent the last decade researching this type of behavior among young people and despite the reputation for relational aggression being something that “girls do,” research shows that boys can be just as mean with their friends as girls.

So where do children learn these kinds of relationally aggressive behaviors?

As one might expect, children learn from behaviors modeled to them (e.g. at home or at school). But this also includes behaviors modeled via media content. Indeed, my research demonstrates that exposure to televised relational aggression is related to children’s use of relational aggression at school.

Unfortunately, relational aggression is quite prevalent in children’s television programs. A study I conducted with Dr. Barbara Wilson, found that 92% of 150 shows that are popular among elementary school children included some form of relational aggression.  

Moreover, the ways in which the relational aggression was portrayed increased the chances that children would imitate it. For example, relational aggression was often enacted by attractive perpetrators, who were rarely punished for the actions, and a majority of the relationally aggressive interactions were meant to be funny, which further minimized any potential consequences to the victims.

This is particularly problematic because follow-up studies have shown that relationally aggressive characters tend to be well-liked by children viewers because they are attractive and funny. When children like characters who do antisocial things, they are more likely to excuse the aggression, and as a result, more likely to report they would imitate the behaviors in the future. 

Clearly, there is room for improvement when it comes to how we feature relationally aggressive conflicts in children’s media representations.

Here are some actionable insights for storytellers:

  • When using a relationally aggressive plot point, show the consequences to the victim. Perhaps the victim can verbalize hurt feelings, or the consequences of a false rumor can be shown.

  • The perpetrator of the relational aggression should be punished in some way. An added bonus: there is research to show that viewers like seeing a disliked perpetrator getting what they deserve.

  • Avoid rewarding relationally aggressive behavior. For example, a verbal ‘put-down’ should not be used to get a laugh. These kinds of actions are easily imitated by young children, but they are not yet able to understand how and when such a joke should be used.

If storytellers could take some of these steps to avoid portraying relational aggression in an appealing light, it could go a long way in shaping how the millions of impressionable young viewers perceive relational aggression and their subsequent behavior. 

 

Nicole Martins, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Media at Indiana University

Collaborator of the Center for Scholars and Storytellers

 

The Fun of Empowering Girls

For over 20 years, I worked in public broadcasting making shows for young people. We made television and digital content and even hosted events in communities across the country. As a public broadcaster, I was keenly aware of what we needed to work hard on, including empowering children…especially girls. We knew from research that if girls saw positive role models on screen, it could have an incredible impact. But no matter how hard we worked, we couldn’t control what happened after they saw a program. We knew that the impact would be higher if the ideas in the shows were talked about at home. And even higher if a parent watched with them.

As a parent, I want great role models too. Like most parents,  I feel a lot of pressure to try to make all the right choices. It can be a lot. So, I think it’s time to make a switch and take the pressure off.

I say let’s have fun with empowering the girls (and boys!) in our lives. Instead of trying to find all the right everything to introduce them to, let’s make it an adventure together.

With your own kids, try to think outside of the box to find awesome role models on your screen, and in your own neighbourhood or town. Make it a quest. A Mission. Make a chart. Or just do it for fun. Find what works with your family dynamic but make the goal finding awesome women near where you live. Here are some suggestions:

1/ Make it a challenge to see who can find the coolest girl character in a tv show. And then watch it together.

2/ Go to the library and see if any women authors are speaking. Or reading from their picture or chapter books.

3/ Check out cool women running for office where you live and go and hear them speak. Even if your kids are too young to understand the issues, all the clapping and sign waiving will make it fun. And they get to see women being supported by other women and men.

4/ In your play- whether it’s with stuffed animals, dolls or action characters- make the role playing about inventing or leading (hey let’s find a way to invent a colour changing t-shirt or create a cardboard starship to fly us to the stars!). Remember that young kids imaginations are way better than ours as adults, so let them run with it.

5/ Celebrate the women in your extended family who have interesting jobs- in science, architecture, a small startup- and have them tell your kids about it

6/ Go old school. Kids still love to play board games. Print off pictures of powerful women- from politicians to pilots- that you can glue to cardboard and use as pieces in any of your favourite family games instead of the regular pieces.

And remember moms, research shows that this isn’t just about our kids. A study in the journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that working women who viewed images of powerful women succeeded in stressful leadership tasks. So have fun with it!

Kim Wilson, Co-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.

Dreams of a Six Year Old Girl

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:

  • An astronaut;

  • A ballet dancer;

  • The President;

  • 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:

  1. Choose media that highlight strong female role models.

Why? Because research shows that representation shapes the way we think.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Flip the Script: Why It’s Time to Combat Gender Stereotypes of Boys

Child Reading

“I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons but it will never work unless we start to raise our sons more like our daughters.” Gloria Steinem

Did you know that 63% of men believe they are encouraged to seize sex whenever they can? The messages we send our boys are confusing and can result in grave misunderstandings, even among the best intentioned. The heterosexual script, a concept established in social science, plays out in real life AND plays out on screen, even in 2018.

  • Men Want Sex/ Women set limits

  • Men attract women through power/ Women attract men through sexiness

  • Men avoid commitment/ Women seek it

We pass on these gender stereotypes without recognizing our unconscious contribution to the formulaic scripts. And media outranks schools and parents as being sources of sex for young people.

By showing characters that don’t play into the stereotypes, our boys can embrace all sides of themselves. Here are some research based ideas on how to balanced gender roles for characters of all ages.

  1. Show boys and girls playing together because boys who have female friends are less likely to think of girls as sexual conquests.

  2. Show “tough” male characters being sensitive because role models are important, particularly for boys.

  3. Show boys doing housework. Girls still do 2 hours more than boys a week.

  4. Show girls making the first move, romantically and sexually, boys talking about love and girls buying flowers for boys.

It’s time to flip the script.

Yalda T. Uhls, Ph.D. 

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