Helping Kids Understand Gender Stereotypes In A Modern World

Children begin to absorb gender stereotypes from a very young age. These stereotypes, which are informed by society’s ideals and norms, can impact a young person’s freedom to make their own choices later in life. They can also subconsciously shape a young person’s behaviour, self-expression, values, and interests, and impact how they relate to others on the basis of gender [12].

According to a 2018 study, 79% of Australian parents reported that they want to help their children to resist traditional gender stereotypes that limit their beliefs, self-esteem, and relationships with others. As a child begins to observe, learn and take part in gendered activities, it’s important that parents take action and challenge restrictive gender stereotypes by teaching their children how to recognise potentially damaging messages about their gender.

This article explores how families can help young people learn to understand and critically analyse gender stereotypes.

What are gender stereotypes and what are their implications?

Gender is largely influenced by culture and can be broadly defined as being ‘culturally ingrained ideas about acceptable behaviours for males and females’. A child will typically become conscious of these stereotypes at 18 months old and is aware of the relevance of gender by the age of two. As their own identity starts to develop, they begin to identify as belonging to a certain gender category with an increased motivation to adopt the behaviours of their peers [3].

Gender stereotypes which are shaped and reinforced during early childhood can impact a young person’s self-awareness, social development, relationships, aspirations, and interests and abilities [6]. Such stereotypes risk perpetuating inequality between the sexes and restricting an individual’s right to deviate from gender expectations. For these reasons, experts agree that is important for children to have a healthy scepticism of gender constraints.

According to a 2017 Girl’s Attitudes Survey, adverts which use gender stereotypes make girls feel…

“Angry, because it is clearly implying that girls are less important and capable than boys.” – 11-16 year old

“Disappointed and underestimated – plus I don’t like pink!” – 7-10 year old

“Confused and annoyed – women can be just as strong and powerful as men.” – 11-16 year old

“Annoyed because it shows that women are only liked for their appearance.” – 17-21 year old

Steps to help children understand and challenge gender stereotypes

To help your child develop healthy attitudes toward gender, it’s important to start the discussion about this form of stereotyping early. This will help them understand and hopefully even avoid the effect these stereotypes can have on their lives, while also encouraging them to develop relationships based on mutual respect and equality.

Here are 9 steps to help young people challenge unhealthy gender stereotypes:

#1 Promote critical thinking about media stereotypes

Unhealthy stereotypes about gender (for example, ‘real’ men are strong and all women are excessively emotional) are pervasive in modern media. They can be seen in children’s TV shows and movies, books, advertisements, and video games [1]. There are multiple ways to combat these media stereotypes:

  • Help young people to think critically about the ways in which men and women are portrayed in the media and whether the characters in film and TV reflect reality
  • Encourage young people to take notice of the number of female and male characters in the media they consume
  • Actively seek out media containing characters that defy restrictive gender stereotypes
  • Make a point of liking certain characters on the basis of how they treat others in the story or film, rather than what they look like

#2 Evaluate your own preconceptions

The majority of modern parents were raised in a society with divisive gender roles, which makes it easy to default into treating boys and girls differently. While progress has been made on this front, research shows that parents are more likely to welcome gender non-conformity in daughters than in sons, showing more concern when a boy engages in feminine activities than when a girl participates in masculine activities.

While it can be hard to overcome entrenched habits and societal stigmas, parents should make an active effort to avoid inadvertently reinforcing gender stereotypes.

#3 Encourage mixed play

To nurture a balanced view of gender, support a range of learning and recreational experiences for both girls and boys. For example, encourage children to play with toys they enjoy without assigning them by gender.

Masculine toys are typically designed to support the development of visual and spatial skills, while feminine toys encourage communication and social skills [6]. While only ever selecting gender-neutral toys may appear to be the solution, you don’t want to reinforce the idea that traditional gender roles are always negative [3]. Instead, it’s best to encourage play with a wide range of toys. Finally, it is important to encourage young people to play with peers of both genders and to recognise the behavioural similarities between the two [6]. This will help them develop empathy and view others as individuals.

#4 Challenge gender roles in relationships

Encouraging acceptance of individuality, equality and non-traditional gender roles can help a young person to establish healthy relationships. Draw attention to the fact that some families do not necessarily follow strict gender conventions; mothers might pursue professional careers and fathers might act as the primary caregiver.

#5 Challenge messages reinforcing toxic masculinity

Toxic masculinity can be defined as a narrow, restrictive concept of ‘what it means to be a man’, characterised by violence, sex, status and aggression [16]. Across many studies, researchers have discovered a greater willingness among girls to challenge gender stereotypes compared to boys, who feel more pressure to adhere to masculine norms [7].

To help challenge these unhealthy messages about masculinity:

  • Look for media that feature boys and men expressing their emotions in constructive ways, enjoying diverse interests, and being kind or friendly to non-heterosexual characters [2].
  • Encourage fathers to challenge toxic ideas about masculinity and role-model positive masculinity, including handling emotions constructively [3]

#6 Challenge female representations in media

The media sometimes reinforces negative stereotypes about femininity, including ideas that females are over-emotional, weaker, less intelligent or superficial. Other harmful ideas about gender include the belief that:

  • Education is less important for women

  • Women need rescuing

  • Women are better suited to caregiving or ‘soft skill’ professions than technical professions [10]

Challenge your children to critically dismantle these stereotypes by taking inspiration from the strong women that exist in their life. Seek out media that reflects a more diverse portrayal of female personalities and skills [1].

#7 Discuss portrayals of gender on social media

As a child begins to broaden their experiences in the digital world, it may be helpful to discuss how gender is depicted on social media and online [1]. Research confirms that teen girls most often choose social media pictures that suggest a desire to appear attractive [13]. Both genders opt for pictures that adhere to media-influenced definitions of sexual attractiveness, although this pattern is less clear for boys [13]. Gender can also impact social behaviour on social media. For example, tween and teen girls may use Instagram in covert ways to strengthen and test their social popularity and status with harmful effects for their self-esteem [11].

#8 Focus on individuals, rather than stereotypes

When talking to your child, avoid referring to people as generalised stereotypes. Instead, focus on individuals [4]. Hearing generalisations, even positive or neutral ones, may contribute to a tendency to view the world through the lens of limiting social stereotypes [4]. Teaching your child to view people as individuals, rather than subsets of a group, will encourage them to respect individuals’ autonomy and a wider spectrum of gender identities [4].

Puberty can be a confusing time where teens experience insecurity. To alleviate that insecurity, many teens seek to conform to hegemonic sexual roles [7]. At this age, unhealthy stereotypes may reflect the idea that boys are predators and girls are prey for sexual attacks [7]. Guide your child away from these harmful preconceptions by encouraging boys to respect girls’ autonomy and right to say no, and dismantle preconceptions that girls who dress a certain way are ‘asking for sex’.

Final thoughts

Equipping a child with strategies to critically analyse gender stereotypes can support their development of a healthy self-concept, support happier, equal relationships [3], and encourage them to embrace and pursue their authentic interests and abilities with confidence [6]. Practical ways that parents can challenge limiting gender stereotypes include:

  • Bolstering critical thinking about media stereotypes
  • Evaluating their own preconceptions
  • Encouraging mixed play
  • Challenging gender roles in relationships, toxic masculinity and feminine representations in media
  • Discussing gender in social media depictions
  • Supporting them to think in terms of individuals, rather than stereotypes
  • Promoting a healthy understanding of sexuality and consent

Ultimately, this will help the child develop a stronger understanding of how society influences concepts of gender, paving the way for a more enlightened understanding of their own identity and contributing to greater equality in society.



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