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When children come into the world, they are immediately bombarded with stereotypes and biases about gender roles. Society, the media, and parents all play a role in conveying to children what it means to be a boy and what it means to be a girl. For example, we dress little girls in pink and frills and boys in blue and sports-themed attire. We encourage girls to be nurturers and caregivers while telling boys to be leaders and providers.
As children transition from childhood to adolescence, their views on gender roles are significantly impacted by these stereotypes. Since children’s first exposure to what gender roles are comes from their family, it’s crucial that parents be mindful of the gender role biases they might be passing on to their children.
Sometimes we don’t even recognize that we are reinforcing stereotypical views on gender roles in our children. Here are five common phrases typically said to girls that reinforce biases about gender roles.
- You’re so bossy. Girls are often encouraged to be submissive, to not be pushy, and to be as demure as possible. Therefore, when a little girl defies expectations and asserts her opinions and wants, this challenges the stereotypical views of how girls should behave, and their behavior is perceived negatively. In contrast, when boys display the same behaviors, they are complimented for showing great leadership skills. This sends the message to little girls that they should be followers and allow their male counterparts to lead.
- Act like a lady. Boys and girls are born into a world that automatically tells them how they should carry themselves. They are directly and indirectly told that girls like dresses, glitter and playing with dolls, while boys like sports and all things adventure. Girls should act like ladies by being kind and submissive. Ladies don’t yell or argue, so when a girl raises her voice and says unkind things, it’s not uncommon to hear someone reprimand her by saying “stop it and act like a lady.” When little girls are told to act like ladies, they learn that boys and girls are expected to behave a certain way and if they don’t behave the right way, they are somehow less of a girl. Phrases like act like a lady stifles little girls and prevents them from expressing their personalities for fear others will judge them.
- You’re such a drama queen. We all know the stereotype of women being extremely emotional and having their feelings cloud their judgment. When we accuse girls of behaving like drama queens, we reinforce this stereotype. We convey to girls that having a willingness to express their feelings and show emotion is a negative thing. Additionally, labeling girls as drama queens when they express their feelings is an effective way to invalidate their feelings.
- You’re such a tomboy. A tomboy is defined as a girl who enjoys rough, noisy activities traditionally associated with boys. Some people think calling a girl a tomboy is some form of a compliment, but the label is problematic. Calling a girl a tomboy promotes the stereotype that ‘real’ girls don’t play sports, get dirty, or go on adventures. Those are things boys do. Therefore, any girl that does these things is different and requires their own special label. Labeling girls as tomboys can have a negative impact on their developing self-concept and self-image because the term tomboy implies that these girls are somehow not atypical.
- You’re so pretty. This one is a little tricky. I mean what’s the harm in telling little girls they are pretty? It builds their self-esteem, right? The answer to that is yes and no. Society bases so much of a woman’s identity on her physical appearance. When we bombard girls with praises of ‘you’re so pretty’, some girls start believing that their worth is tied to their appearance. Therefore, if they start getting messages from others that they are not pretty, they begin to question their worth. We can still tell girls they’re pretty, we just need to make sure that they know that they are more than just their physical appearance.
So if these phrases should be avoided, then what can we tell girls instead? Well, we can start encouraging them to be their authentic selves, even if it goes against stereotypes. We can celebrate their individuality and the richness of their personality. Most importantly, we can support our girls by helping them to redefine what it means to be a girl.
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