Pocket worthyStories to fuel your mind

Sexism Starts in Childhood

It can also be stopped there. But only if parents push a stronger message than our culture does.


Read when you’ve got time to spare.

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo.

With every sexual harassment scandal that hits, I feel all the emotions: anger, betrayal, heartbreak that something I vaguely sensed turns out to really be true. I also feel a growing sense of fear—not for me, but for my kids. How do I shape my son into a man who respects women and treats them as equals? Is it possible for him to breathe society’s misogynistic air every day without succumbing? How do I instill in my daughter the confidence, resolve, and resilience to thrive in a culture that will incessantly push her down?

So I did what I always do in these “I wonder” situations: I dug into the science and talked to researchers. I asked them how and why kids develop gender stereotypes and sexist behavior, and what parents can do to prevent them. Thankfully, parents can make a difference. We don’t have as much of an influence on these trajectories as we might like—peers and culture are more powerful—but parents certainly can take steps, even with toddlers and preschoolers, to ensure that their kids grow up less sexist and more egalitarian than our culture tells them to be.

It’s helpful to understand how kids develop an understanding of gender and its importance. Children are constantly observing the world—mainly, studying people and their differences—and making inferences based on what they see and hear about these differences. “The kid looks to the world to say, Which of these things are important?” explains Rebecca Bigler, a psychologist and women’s and gender studies researcher at the University of Texas at Austin. By their first birthdays, most babies can distinguish between male and female faces—but adults are the ones who tell them that gender matters, because we constantly point it out. “We use gendered nouns all the time: ‘Good morning, boys and girls,’ ‘What a good girl,’ ‘The man is at the corner,’ ‘Ask that lady’,” Bigler explains, and “that tells kids that gender is really important—because otherwise, why do you label it hundreds of times a day?”

Once kids know to pay attention to gender, they also start drawing black-and-white conclusions about its meaning, because that’s how kids’ brains work—they create rigid, overgeneral rules and categories. Crude stereotypes, if you will. They might decide, based on examples they see, that women cook and are teachers, and that men play football and are firefighters—but that men never cook and women never fight fires. They’ll start to discern the power discrepancy between the genders when they notice, say, that all U.S. presidents have been men. They might even draw causal inferences from it: If the most powerful position in the country is always held by men, then I guess men must inherently be smarter and more capable than women. Ultimately, based on what they observe, kids decide that “there are a lot of essential and innate differences between boys and girls,” says Christia Spears Brown, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky and the author of Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue. (That power discrepancy is worse in America than most people realize: In 2007, the World Economic Forum analyzed 128 countries in terms of gender differences in economic participation, educational attainment, political empowerment, and health. The U.S. came in at No. 31, behind Bulgaria and Namibia. If you want gender equality, move to Scandinavia or New Zealand.)

As kids start to build these gender stereotypes, they start conforming to them, too—in part because they are rewarded for doing so. Research has shown that parents (particularly dads) preferentially offer kids gender-appropriate toys; they also tend to reward kids for playing with them and scold them for playing with stereotypically inappropriate toys. Parents are also more tolerant when sons are physically aggressive with peers and siblings than when daughters act in a similar way. Teachers, according to one recent study, also tend to encourage gender-stereotypical behavior among girls. And peers pile on the pressure, too. Kids—boys especially—punish each other, sometimes cruelly, when gender rules are broken and often exclude others on the basis of gender. One study watched preschool boys while they were playing and found that when boys showed interest in stereotypically girls’ toys like play kitchens, dollhouses, or dresses, other boys interrupted by hitting and ridiculing them. As kids continue to practice these gendered behaviors, they become routine and weave into their self-identity.

OK, but, some of you might be thinking, my son was obsessed with trucks when he was practically a baby. Aren’t some gender stereotypes driven by biology rather than culture? Researchers concede this is a very difficult question to answer, in part because we can never really separate out nature from nurture, even in babies. “Boys and girls have different biological experiences prenatally, and different biological and social experiences from the time they are born, and these influences interact with one another, so disentangling them is difficult,” says Carol Martin, a child development researcher at Arizona State University. Still, it’s likely that peer and parental influences still shape even early gendered behavior: “Most of it is [that] kids are playing with what their parents buy them,” Brown says. Or they’re mimicking what other toddlers of their gender do—toddlers who might gravitate toward gender-appropriate toys because of what they have been offered or encouraged to play with before. There is evidence that testosterone levels in early development influence play behavior, but it’s unclear how much of an effect these hormones have. But boys and girls both love dolls, Brown says—it’s just that with girls, they’re called “dolls” and with boys, they’re called “action figures.”

Certainly, though, as kids get older—8, 9, 10—they develop more cognitive flexibility, and many realize that gender norms are largely based on social conventions. But at around the same time, children also start to develop moral reasoning, and in some kids, these gender stereotypes get moralized instead of relaxed—kids start to think that girls are expected to be demure and boys are expected to be assertive simply because “this is the right thing to do,” says Campbell Leaper, a developmental and social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

And here’s the crux of the problem: The more ingrained kids’ gender stereotypes become, the more easily they conclude that girls are inferior to boys—that boys have higher status because they biologically deserve it. (And they’ll continue to believe it as adults: On average, parents rate sons as more intelligent than daughters.) Making matters worse, as kids transition into adolescence, these gendered stereotypes shift in an important way: They become sexualized. Research suggests that adolescents with strong gender stereotypes start to believe that boys are constantly seeking out sex and that girls should strive to look pretty and seek boys’ sexual attention. Studies also find that the more strongly boys believe these stereotypes, the more likely they are to make sexual comments, to tell sexual jokes in front of girls, and to grab women.

Interestingly, research also suggests that stereotypical beliefs about gender are stronger among boys than girls. This could be in part because boys feel more cultural and parental pressure to conform to gender expectations than girls do. It’s less culturally acceptable for boys to pretend to be princesses than it is for girls to play Superman, and boys know that and respond accordingly. Researchers hypothesize that this discrepancy exists in part because of the status difference in our culture between women and men. “A lower status group [in this case, girls] generally is more apt to adopt the characteristics of the high-status group [boys] because it could enhance their status esteem, whereas a high-status group is less likely to adopt the characteristics of a low-status or low-power group, because that might be viewed as status loss,” Leaper explains. It’s not that men and boys are whispering to each other, Psst! we’re the more powerful gender, so don’t mess with the status quo. It’s more of a subconscious behavior.

Let me pause here and quickly review. Many people roll their eyes at the pushback against seemingly innocuous cultural traditions like dressing boys in blue and girls in pink and buying kids gendered toys. I, too, have wondered, What’s the big deal? because on the surface, these customs seem innocent enough. But the research I’ve just described charts a compelling and worrying path from these traditions to the development of childhood beliefs that, geez, yeah, girls and boys must really be quite different—and, given the gender hierarchy that’s widely visible, that girls must somehow be inferior. Then, when these stereotypes morph during adolescence, they lead to something even more sinister: The idea that girls are sex objects and that boys are sex-obsessed, that it’s OK for guys to cross sexual boundaries because that’s just how guys are. This is the kind of mindset that could lead a Harvey Weinstein or a James Toback to believe they have a right to help themselves to women’s bodies. So, yeah: Dressing your baby girl in pink ruffles might be cute, but it may also feed a dangerous societal monster.

Let’s move on to some good news: We as parents can definitely instill more egalitarian gender beliefs in our kids. First, and perhaps most easily, we can encourage our kids to play with kids of the other gender. In a 2001 study, Carol Martin and her colleague Richard Fabes at Arizona State studied preschoolers’ and kindergartners’ play patterns and found that the more kids played with children of their own gender, the more stereotypically gendered their behavior became—so the boys who played mainly with other boys began to play more forcefully and actively while the girls who played with other girls started playing less aggressively. “Encouraging co-ed friendships is one of the most important things parents (and teachers) can do,” Martin says. “When they interact with each other like this, both girls and boys learn about each other and their similarities, become more comfortable with one another, and we believe that it may provide a kind of social resiliency allowing them to deal with a range of social experiences.”

We can also push against gender stereotypes by pointing them out and raising questions. When a sexist scenario unfolds on a TV show your kid is watching (because, surprise!, skewed gender ratios and stereotypes are a big problem in children’s television and commercials), bring it up right then and there, Bigler says: Why do you think they’re only showing boys going on these adventures? Do you think that’s fair? Use everyday experiences as conversation starters, too. If you’re at a store and a stranger tells your daughter, Oh what a pretty dress, build on it. “You could reply with ‘Thank you, yes, her dress is pretty, and she’s very smart, too,’ ” Bigler says. Or, if you’d prefer to avoid confrontation, discuss the comment’s implications with your daughter afterward. “You can say, ‘Why did she say your dress was pretty? I think that has something to do with how she thinks girls should look. I wonder if she says boys look pretty. I’m kind of offended—I think your dress is pretty, but I don’t think that’s what’s important about you,’ ” Bigler says.

Crucially, too, challenge your kids when they make sexist comments. You’ll get plenty of opportunities. Just a few days ago, my 6-year-old told me about a game he had played at a party that “only boys could play.” I asked him some questions and got a conversation going. Eventually he concluded: It’s not fair to exclude girls just because they are girls. Research suggests that these tactics work and can last. In a 2009 study, Bigler and her colleagues coached a group of 5- to 10-year-olds to verbally challenge various types of sexist remarks. (In response to “You can’t play this, you’re a girl,” they’d be taught to reply, “You can’t say that girls can’t play.”) Practicing these retorts during the intervention led kids to continue using them even six months later; girls in the study (but not boys) also developed and maintained more egalitarian gender beliefs.

Parents might also want to avoid gendered toys, outfits, and expectations so that they don’t reinforce the message that boys and girls really are different and we want them to stay that way. Try not to frown when your son says he wants to try ballet; don’t let your daughter give up on sports or science quickly just because she’s a girl. (This column isn’t about raising non-gender-conforming kids, but if your kids don’t identify with their assigned gender, please listen to and support them—doing so may help them more than you realize.) Also, limit the number of times you unnecessarily refer to gender in conversation with your kids. Instead of saying “Those girls are playing soccer,” say “Those kids are playing soccer.” It’s hard: As soon as I started paying attention to gendered language, I realized that I’m constantly saying things like “You’re such a strong girl!” to my daughter, highlighting her gender for no reason. (“You’re so strong” would be better.)

You could also talk to your kids’ teachers about limiting gender distinctions at school. One of Bigler’s studies found that when teachers seated students according to gender and verbally called out their genders (“Hey, boys” and “OK, girls” instead of just “Listen up, students”), they became more likely than other kids to believe gender stereotypes later on. And in a 2010 study, researchers asked preschool teachers to emphasize gender in one classroom for two weeks—they had kids line up by gender, created separate boys’ and girls’ bulletin boards, and labeled groups and individuals according to gender—while teachers in another classroom did the opposite. Before and after the intervention, they tested the students’ gender attitudes. They found that, after the two weeks, students in the gender-emphasized class had stronger gender stereotypes. They also rated peers of the other sex more negatively and played less with them.

It’s kind of a paradox, then: We should do what we can to limit the cultural and linguistic traditions that emphasize gender distinctions so that, hopefully, our kids won’t get overly focused on gender differences. At the same time, though, we need to talk to our kids about sexism and gender stereotypes and challenge their sexist and stereotypical comments. Ultimately, this two-pronged approach makes sense. We want our kids to consider girls and boys as equals, but we also need them to build a mental framework that helps them understand—and fight against—everything that stands in equality’s way.

Melinda Wenner Moyer is a science writer based in New York’s Hudson Valley and is Slate’s science-based parenting columnist. Her book How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t As*holes will be published in 2021.

How was it? Save stories you love and never lose them.

Logo for Slate

This post originally appeared on Slate and was published November 6, 2017. This article is republished here with permission.

Want more Slate in your life?

Get the daily newsletter.