Reading aloud is one of the best things parents can do for their young kids ― teaching them about the world and themselves, and even changing the structural makeup of their brains.
But a new study serves as a stark reminder that the “what” and the “how” matter. When researchers analyzed 247 books for children up to age 5 (including a mix of the bestsellers and titles pulled from “best of all time” lists), they found evidence of many gender stereotypes ― for example, that girls are better at language and boys are better at math.
Many stories also employ gendered language and concepts. When girls are the protagonists, books are more likely to use words that convey affection, or to contain words like “explain” and “listen.” When boys are the protagonists, plots and language tend to focus more on work, transportation and tools.
“There is often kind of a cycle of learning about gender stereotypes, with children learning stereotypes at a young age then perpetuating them as they get older,” study researcher Molly Lewis, special faculty in the social and decision sciences and psychology departments at the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, said in a press release. “These books may be a vehicle for communicating information about gender. We may need to pay some attention to what those messages may be and whether they’re messages you want to even bring to children.”
Lewis emphasized that she and her co-researchers are not looking to destroy families’ relationships with, say, Amelia Bedelia or Curious George. But there are simple steps caregivers can take to push back against gendered language and stereotypes in picture books. Here are a few.
Take a critical look at your child’s library
One of the best ways parents can offer a counterweight to gender stereotypes in children’s books — and this applies to stereotypes of all kind, really — is to make sure kids have access to gender-inclusive books at home and the library. The internet is full of lists of representative children’s book titles, including many that center LGBTQ characters. There are book finders and collections that can help as well.
In some gender-inclusive books, a character’s gender or sexuality is central to the plot; other times it isn’t. Those so-called “any child” books can be powerful as well. The goal is to have a mix.
“It does matter which books you read,” Jennifer Goldstein, head of books with A Kids Book About, told HuffPost. “Seeing strong representation of someone like you in a proactive, positive role is a building block for your future self.”
Also, make sure you are not only reading books with male protagonists to boys and books with female protagonists to girls. The researchers behind the new study found that children are most often exposed to stereotypes about their own gender, suggesting parents aren’t necessarily mixing it up.
“It’s important for all of us to see all kinds of folks doing everyday and important things. This means all genders are visible, including cisgender, transgender, and nonbinary,” Goldstein said. “Reflect the actuality of humanity as a whole. This is a lifelong skill, and opens up for all people the idea that we all can do everything.”
Use iffy books as tools
Odds are pretty good that your child is going to love a book or two that isn’t exactly open-minded about gender roles. But you don’t have to toss books like these. Instead, use them. Books can be a great way into big, thorny topics, especially for young kids whose brains are growing millions of neural connections by the second.
“Every children’s book is a moment of pleasure and a moment of education,” said Diane Ehrensaft, director of the Mental Health, Child and Adolescent Gender Center with UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco.
They’re not too young. The American Academy of Pediatrics points out that children learn a lot about what they think gender role behaviors are, and what they “should” be, early on — like, by age 4.
So simply notice basic stereotypes and point them out.
“You can say something like, ‘I’m looking at this and I’m wondering why does Sylvia always have to wear pink? And why can’t Jeremy be wearing pink?’” Ehrensaft said. “You can just say, ‘I’m wondering why should that be? And why shouldn’t that be a people color?’”
Goldstein offered some other questions that can help get discussions rolling:
“Do you think it matters what your gender is in order to be a doctor? A chef? Drive race cars? Sew clothing? Why?”
“At school, does your gender help you to learn the alphabet? Count to 10? Use a pencil? Read a book? Why?”
“In our home, who does what? Why?”
Break out the Post-its
Another option: Turn it into a hands-on activity and use Post-its so you and your kiddo can basically rewrite the book together. If there’s something you’d like to point out or push back on — like the same simple example of all of a book’s female characters wearing pink, while all the boys wear blue — stick the Post-it in the book. Maybe write a thought bubble where a male character says: “Gee, I’d like to wear pink sometime.”
“It’s a creative activity with your child, so you don’t have to put those books away. You can use them and edit them,” Ehrensaft said. Also, it’s fun for kids to play author. And it gives them a sense of agency, Ehrensaft noted.
Of course, not every book needs to be a teaching moment. None of the experts interviewed for this piece argued that was the case. Sometimes, you and your toddler or preschooler are just going to want to cuddle up together before bedtime and lose yourselves in a story without worrying about the bigger message. Don’t force it.
“You should never make a child read what you believe,” Ehrensaft said. Nor should you lecture them or argue with them if they have moments when they assert that, yes, pink most definitely is a girl’s color. They’re little and they’re learning. Parents are still learning, too.
“It’s the opening of a conversation,” Ehrensaft said.