Families and Parent Educators Help Girls Go Beyond Stereotypes (page 2)
VaJezatha Payne-Hines has given her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter ‘boy’ toys as well as dolls and other ‘girl’ toys. Her daughter’s nurturing behavior—feeding and tucking in her trucks—shows her that “you don’t have to push femininity…she’s going to be a nurturer,” says Payne-Hines, mother of three and long-time family child care provider in Carson. But her daughter also “jumps, she runs, she smashes her trucks together, she says what she needs, and defends her territory,” she adds.
Some girls want to play with dolls or dress up—but not all girls. And even the ones that do may also want to look for bugs or dig in the dirt. Challenging gender stereotypes can help girls more fully explore what interests them and build valuable skills for later life.
Families and parent educators share tips for encouraging all girls to grow without being held back by stereotypes.
Let girls be themselves
“Every child has their own personality,” says long-time early childhood teacher Carol Minami at the Los Angeles Harbor College Child Development Center. When families let the interests of the child guide them, she adds, they can sidestep the cultural messages about what girls should and should not do.
“If a girl wants to do woodworking and look for bugs and play rough and she doesn’t see that’s something the (adult) values, she gets the message she isn’t the kind of girl she’s supposed to be,” adds long-time preschool teacher Greg Uba. In his program, girls spend a lot of time outdoors and learn that “ball play and digging in the sand are (also) valued,” he adds.
“Parents worry about the gay issue,” says preschool teacher Esperanza Grageda. But, she says, how you play as a child will not make you gay. “It’s not like that at all. You’re either gay or not.”
Don’t perpetuate stereotypes
“If I gave my daughter a doll, I also gave her a medical kit or a briefcase,” says Janet Fleming of Conejo Valley Neighborhood for Learning. “My son had dolls and trains. Now there are pastel blocks—you’re supposed to buy those for girls and primary colors for boys. (In stores selling) costumes, they have a picture of a boy dressed as a train engineer, a girl dressed as a nurse. Parents are (flooded) with these messages.”
“But you don’t have to buy pink because she’s a girl,” adds Fleming. “She doesn’t have to wear a shirt that says ‘I’m a princess.’ There’s a great book called Do Princesses Wear Hiking Boots? that asks about riding bikes, taking frogs out of a pond. And you can point out stereotypes in books: are the doctors male, the nurses female?” (See: Beyond sugar & spice, snakes & snails for more children’s books)
Counter the sexist—and sexualized—messages girls receive
“Parents are concerned that younger and younger girls—eight, nine—are concerned about their weight,” says Slaton. “Often girls that age do put on baby fat, but then they compare themselves to teen idols. You have to be honest, and say, ‘This is what happens, your body is getting ready to grow.’ It’s also important to talk about healthy eating and exercise.”
Payne-Hines says she bans Disney movies from her home because the female characters dress scantily, have big lips and breasts and tiny waists. “It’s presexualized. Ariel (in The Little Mermaid) spent the whole movie in a bikini top. She was adventurous but then she got married and all that went away. I don’t want (my daughter) to feel like she has to sacrifice something exciting to be with someone.”
“We dress our little girls like sluts,” adds Brenda Hunter, executive director of Conejo Valley Neighbor-hood for Learning. “You see leopard skin outfits for five-year-olds—parents say they have a hard time finding good choices. (Girls) get really caught up in appearance, bringing out a ‘sexual object’ approach before they even know what that means. I don’t want to see a little five-year-old shaking her bootie. Then you find sixth graders (having sex) because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do to please boys.”
Help girls explore non-traditional activities
In Renaldo Sanders’ family child care program, “everyone runs and jumps and climbs”, she says, including her niece. Before her niece came to live with Sanders, the girl was not encouraged to play outdoors or taught to ride a bike along with her brothers. But she “took karate along with my husband and my son,” says Sanders. “We taught her to skate and do pull ups, we wanted her to be able.”
Lee Anne Slaton, from Parents’ Place in San Francisco, helps parents encourage girls to do non-traditional activities, like team sports. “They teach you how to work in a team, how to lose in public—how to win in public,” she says. “And sports are very important for girls, health-wise.”
Encourage girls to speak up
“I’m Latina and in my family we don’t express ourselves,” says Grageda. “So I ask girls to express themselves when someone hurts them, when someone does something they don’t like.”
“It’s OK for girls to argue, to negotiate,” says Slaton. “Encourage girls not to just be the ‘good girl’ who says yes and goes along. When my daughter wanted a raise in her allowance, she had to present a plan, explain why she needed more, and what she would spend it on. That was useful later on in jobs!”
“(People think) girls can do anything, there’s no more glass ceiling,” says Slaton. “But when they go to school, it’s important for parents to listen when girls complain, ‘The teacher calls on boys more.’ Talk about it with the teacher. Teachers don’t realize they’re doing it, but boys tend to demand more attention. Girls are praised for neatness, boys for product.”
“When teachers and families only focus on what letters a student writes or what colors she knows, other skills fade in importance,” adds Uba. “Girls learn the only thing that matters is how well they sit still and do traditional academic learning.”
- Raising Girls, by Melissa Trevathan and Sissy Goff
- Everyday Ways to Raise Smart, Strong, Confident Girls by Barbara Littman
- Growing a Girl, by Barbara Mackoff
Reprinted with the permission of the Action Alliance for Children.
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