Our three-year-old son recently told me something that nearly sent me into cardiac arrest.
“Girls don’t play football. Football is for boys.”
In his defense, I suspect he drew this conclusion from a couple scenarios:
1) He only plays football with his dad and knows that mommy’s thing is soccer.
2) His 75-year-old grandmother recently visited and likely got out of playing “tackle and fight” by saying she doesn’t play football.
What sent me over the edge was when I tried to show him pictures of female athletes running, tackling and kicking field goals, the first Google images I came across were of a lingerie football league. Sigh.
This isn’t the first time I’ve had to explain that girls can do anything boys do and boys can do anything girls do. Yesterday, on the drive home from daycare, he said his two girl friends at daycare were playing with ponies. I asked if he played too and he replied: “ponies are only for girls.”
I find myself wondering: “Where do these messages come from?”
According to gender equity consultant, Cristina Stasia, they’re everywhere, from the Barbie-filled aisles of toy stores to the princess paradigms in books and movies.
“So much in our pop culture, in our society — sometimes in our schools, our churches, their peer groups — works against raising those autonomous, independent, resilient girls,” Stasia said.
“If parents aren’t actively engaged in conversations about ‘What does it look like for a girl to be independent? What is it about Katniss Everdeen that makes her able to save the day and save her friends and define her own future?’
“If they’re not digging into the texts and having those conversations, other people are defining what a strong girl looks like for their children.”
Stasia has tips to counter cultural messages that go against raising independent and autonomous girls:
Compliment your daughter as an active participant versus a passive object
Stasia says when people compliment girls, they often focus on their appearance or passive qualities.
“There’s a lot of, ‘You’re so pretty, you’re so beautiful, you’re so gorgeous,'” Stasia said.
“‘You’re so sweet. You’re such a good girl.’ That’s what girls tend to hear most versus boys where they get complimented for their skills and their abilities and their resilience.
“A nice easy hack to begin to shift this is to watch the language you are using when you’re talking to little girls.”
Stasia says when she chats with her six-year-old niece, she uses words to describe her like smart, funny, creative and curious; anything that doesn’t define her solely based on her appearance.
Give access to activities and toys traditionally associated with a specific gender
“When they see their parents treating boys and girls the same — their brothers and their sisters all have to do the same housework, they all have access to the same toys, they’re all in karate and ballet — that starts to chip away at the idea that there are girls’ things and boys’ things.”
Encourage your kids to be critical consumers of media, movies and books
Stasia says rather than outlawing stories that revolve around the princess paradigm, chat with your sons and daughters about the messages ingrained in these fairy tales.
“If you think about Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, they’re actually unconscious when the princes kiss them — not really the best message to be sending kids, especially right now in this moment of #MeToo but a great catalyst for a conversation about consent.
“Ariel sells her voice to buy drugs to change her body for a man — not a great message for young girls. Belle lives with a beast who physically and emotionally and verbally abuses her until she sees past his anger and falls in love with him and then he turns into a handsome prince,” Stasia said.
“We are constantly seeing these constructions of girls and women in princess culture who are waiting, who are passive, who do not create their own destinies and who are defined solely in relation to men, whether their fathers, their future princes or beasts.”
Stasia says there are lots of great books and movies with strong female heroes, such as Moana for younger kids and the Hunger Games for older children. She’s a fan of stories where girls save the day all on their own.
“It’s super important for girls and boys to read books with independent, autonomous, unapologetic female heroes.
“It’s important that they are given people who look like them, that they can relate to, and that open up a world beyond their own.”
Stastia says ultimately the best way to raise independent girls and capable boys who feel unrestricted by their gender is to lead by example.
I hope, in our case, that influence is more powerful than the outdated gender stereotypes our son might hear on occasion.
I hope he recognizes the times that Daddy does bathtime so Mommy can play soccer or go running in the woods. I hope he remembers the times Mommy stood up for herself. And I hope he sees the girls and women in his life as capable, even those who don’t want to play “tackle and fight.”