Want to make sure the girls in your life know they can do and be anything they want? Then it’s time to flex some muscle and start busting gender stereotypes! Girl Scouts’ Developmental Psychologist Andrea Bastiani Archibald, Ph.D. puts it this way: “Kids have this amazing, natural ability to see the world as limitless, but when adults signal that certain things or behaviors are off limits for kids based on their gender, their worlds get smaller and smaller—and that’s not just sad, it can be damaging as well.”
Obviously, every parent has the best intentions, but sometimes it’s possible to unknowingly promote stereotypes that can fence your girl in. To make sure she understands she can accomplish anything she wants in life, try these six easy tips and encourage your friends, family, and neighbors to do the same!
- Let toys be toys—for girls and boys!
Make sure your children get a wide variety of toys to play with. You never know what they’ll gravitate toward or why. “Maybe your son will love the mini kitchen playset, because he sees you cooking every day and wants to be like you,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald. “On the other hand, your toddler daughter might like toy trucks because she sees them drive through your neighborhood and likes to create scenarios around the things she encounters in her everyday world.” The point is that you won’t know what your child might really be into unless she’s given options and encouraged to seek out what interests her most. And if she prefers dolls over dump trucks? So be it! “There’s nothing wrong with a girl who loves playing tea party while wearing a dress, as long as it’s her choice and not the only option presented her.”
- Plan meaningful meet-ups
Expose your children—boys and girls!—to women who’ve followed all sorts of paths in life. Your local fire department just hired a female firefighter? Stop by the station to say hi and thank her for her service. The woman next door is a computer programmer? Fantastic! Encourage your children to ask her about her career. “Women, even those with very successful careers in male-dominated fields, are still too often seen by children only as the ones who fix the snacks for the weekend soccer game,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald. “Helping your little ones understand that the women in their lives have interests, passions, and careers outside of the family life they see will expand your children’s horizons and show them all the things women can be and do.” And don’t stop there! Look for kid-friendly biographies and autobiographies that showcase the amazing and wide-ranging achievements of girls and women all over the world. “She may not have the opportunity to meet a Supreme Court Judge or an astronaut in her neighborhood,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald, “but that shouldn’t keep her from meeting the phenomenal women in those roles through books!”
- Watch, then talk
After watching a movie or TV show with your girl, set aside some time to talk about what you’ve just seen, making sure to discuss how different genders were portrayed. Was the “smart” girl portrayed as nerdy or not as cool as the others? Was the main character male or female, and if he was male, would the story have made sense if they’d reversed that character’s gender? Explain that because TV shows and online videos have a short period of time to tell a story, they too often rely on visual cues—often stereotypes—to quickly communicate ideas about their characters. As Dr. Bastiani Archibald notes, “the more we help our girls look critically at the media and come to understand the negative impact of gender stereotypes, the better equipped they’ll be to defy them throughout their lives.”
- Think before you speak
The way you speak about the women in your life (and yourself!) has a huge impact on the way your girl views herself. Be honest: When you give compliments to your girlfriends, your sisters, or your female coworkers, are they mainly about the things they wear or how they look? Try broadening what you praise in other women by noting the smart comment they made in a meeting, her ability to stay calm under pressure, or even her thoughtfulness for calling you during a busy day. “We need to do more to show girls all that they’re valued for,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald. “Of course you think your girl is beautiful, and there’s no reason to not tell her so sometimes, but she—and all the women in your world—need to know they’re valued for so much more than just their looks.” And the same goes for negative comments. When your daughter hears you talking negatively about the way you or another woman looks, she’s learning to pick apart her own looks and judge others based on appearances. She’s looking to you as a role model in life, so if you want her to be kind to herself, you can show her how by being good to yourself first.
- Remember that chores have no gender
When it comes to household responsibilities, families so often assign tasks in a very old-fashioned way without even realizing it. If you have a girl and a boy, does your daughter typically take care of domestic things like washing the dishes and setting the table, while your son is doing more physical tasks like mowing the lawn or climbing ladders to replace lightbulbs? “Put household responsibilities on a rotating schedule, so that everyone gets to try their hand at everything,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald. “Having mastered these skills will benefit both your girls and your boys, showing them that there’s no such thing as men’s work or women’s work—it’s all just work!”
- Embrace Adventure
Have an open weekend where you and your girl could do pretty much whatever you wanted? There’s nothing wrong with getting your nails done for some quality time, but make sure that’s not what you’re doing every time (or even most of the time) when you have a chance to bond. Change it up! Grab a basketball and head to the courts in your local park. Check out the new laser tag place in town to see what the fuss is all about. Heck, grab some wheels and cruise on over to the skate park. Engaging girls in active sports, especially those not traditionally seen as “ladylike” helps her see her body as strong and capable, and not just “pretty.” Plus, it’ll teach her from an early age that the fun of sports isn’t just something for boys to enjoy—she belongs in these places and on these teams, too.