A Simple Way to Reduce Sexism in Kids
Plus: celebrating a big book milestone!!! And what I've been reading this week.
Everyone, an exciting announcement: Sometime today or tomorrow — maybe even by the time you read this! — 30,000 copies of my book, How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes, will have been sold in the United States. I am beyond tickled that my book has found its way into so many hands and so many homes. It’s honestly hard to wrap my head around. 30,000!!!
I’m also thrilled — and maybe some of you will benefit from this development — that my book is now being translated into eleven languages: Spanish, Portuguese, German, Japanese, Polish, Russian, Italian, Hungarian, Slovakian, Lithuanian, and Romanian.
I want to thank all of you, from the depths of my heart. Writing (and trying to sell!) a book can be lonely and terrifying, but I’ve had many of you as cheerleaders all along the way, and I am so very grateful.
I’d like to think that, because of the book, there will be tens of thousands of fewer assholes in the world in the near future. Hey, one can dream, right? But that really has been my dream, since the start: To write a book that might make the world a better place. We are all raising the next generation of humans, and through our parenting we can, absolutely, build a better future. If we succeed, and I think we already are, it’s not thanks to me — it’s thanks to all the scientists who have been doing the crucial work of understanding what it takes to raise good humans, and thanks to all of you who have chosen to care enough about the science to engage with it through my writing.
Today, in celebration of this milestone, I want to share a simple anti-sexism strategy that I discussed in my book and unpack the fascinating science that helped to uncover it. Because I don’t know about you, but I sometimes observe the state of the world and I think: Is there any hope for our kids? Can we raise our children in this sexist and racist society and somehow prevent them from becoming sexist and racist themselves? Yes. I do believe we can, but it won’t be easy.
Much of the science I’m discussing today was conducted by psychologist Rebecca Bigler, now a professor emerita at the University of Texas at Austin. Bigler has long been interested in understanding what causes kids to develop prejudice, asking questions like: What has to happen for a child to learn to dislike groups of people? Why is it that people often harbor gender- and race-based prejudices, but no discernible prejudice regarding eye or hair color (other than blonde jokes, which, to be clear, are also pernicious)?
To find out, back in 1992, Bigler began running a series of now landmark experiments in partnership with various schools, summer school programs, and day care centers. Every day for several weeks, some kids arrived at school and were told to put on blue shirts, while others were told to wear yellow ones. The T-shirts essentially created a new social category (like race or gender) that was very easy for kids to see. One of kids’ key jobs is to figure out which social categories matter in the world and why, so Bigler was curious to see what would happen when she introduced a new one.
Bigler’s team then began tweaking the kids’ classroom environments as they wore their T-shirts. In one experiment, Bigler had teachers in some classrooms completely ignore the shirt colors — they never mentioned them or separated the kids by color in any way. In other classrooms, teachers were told to regularly highlight the colors, but in a neutral way. They would say “good morning, blues and yellows!” at the start of the school day they would line the kids up by color and refer to individual students by color.
(Importantly, the teachers never allowed the groups to compete against each other — they weren’t allowed to play games against each other at recess, for instance. Competition is a sure-fire way to incite prejudice, and Bigler wanted to see what happens when categories are made salient but in a neutral way.)
After weeks of teachers doing this on a daily basis, Bigler’s team surveyed the students. They found that in classrooms in which teachers didn’t call attention to T-shirt colors, the students developed very little prejudice against kids wearing the other color. In classrooms in which teachers regularly called attention to the shirts in a neutral way, however, the students became quite prejudiced — blues believed that they were smarter than yellows, and vice versa, even though they’d been given no evidence to suggest there were group differences in intelligence.
What does all of this have to do with sexism and gender? Well, we can think of the T-shirts as proxy for gender — they’re a social category that’s easy to see and effectively splits classrooms into two groups, just as gender often does. In Bigler’s experiments, teachers highlighted these colors just as teachers often emphasize gender.
What these studies suggest, then, is that when adults draw verbal attention to gender, it incites kids to develop prejudices against, and stereotypes about, people of other genders.
In a follow-up study published in 2001, Bigler’s team confirmed just how important verbal labeling is: Even when students saw posters in their classrooms suggesting that blues really were smarter than yellows (because, say, the blues had earned more spots on the school’s competitive math team last year), students didn’t develop strong prejudices unless their teachers also called attention to the T-shirt colors during class.
The studies point to one key conclusion: “Gender labeling is very, very important for developing gender bias,” Bigler told me. Research by other scientists has found that the earlier kids learn to label gender, the earlier they start conforming their behavior to gender stereotypes (like preferring dolls if they are girls, and trucks if they are boys). And, as I’ve written elsewhere before, gender stereotypical behaviors and beliefs are often precursors to sexism — even sexual violence.
The problem is, we are constantly referring to gender when we speak to kids. “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 said. “That tells kids that gender is really important — because otherwise, why do you label it hundreds of times a day?” You can imagine that if we constantly referred to a person’s hair color when we interacted with them, our kids would start to think hair color really matters, too.
Indeed, every time we use “he” or “she” pronouns, we indirectly indicate gender. “We turn their gender into their personhood,” Bigler said.
The take-home: try to stop emphasizing gender unnecessarily.
What this means for parents is that we should ease up on gender labels ourselves. It takes intention, but do your best to refer to people as “kids,” “students,” and “people” rather than “boys,” “girls,” “men,” and “women.”
So instead of saying Those girls are playing soccer, say Those kids are playing soccer. Consider using gender neutral pronouns, too.
It’s not that you can’t or shouldn’t talk about gender with your kids — in fact, as I explained in my book, it’s crucial to talk to your kids about sexism. What we shouldn’t do is highlight gender unnecessarily in conversations that aren’t about gender. That’s counterproductive, because it reinforces the idea to our kids that gender matters and that the genders are different in meaningful ways.
If you feel comfortable doing so, you might also want to request that your kids’ teachers stop using gender labels or gendered categories. It’s not helpful to say things like, Good morning, boys and girls! Or let’s line up boy-girl-boy-girl for recess! Some preschools in Sweden have started doing this, and a 2017 study found that students in these schools developed less pronounced gender stereotypes over time compared with students at other schools. (And please, please, dearest gym teachers: Do not have boys play against girls. Doing so not only highlights gender, but it also creates competition between the genders, which worsens burgeoning gender bias.)
There’s tons more you can do at home to push back against sexism, too — this is just a first step. If you want to learn more, I recommend that you check out chapter 5 of my book. And then move on to chapter 7, which digs into the extremely important science of raising antiracist kids. And remember that you’ll make mistakes along the way. That’s part of the work. Just keep going. Aim for progress, not perfection.