Michelle Markey was cleaning up the kitchen when she asked her 7-year-old son to help with the dirty dishes.
“He said he didn’t have to because he was told by a relative that helping with dishes is a job for girls,” Markey tells Yahoo Life.
Markey, who lives in Titusville, Fla., found the comment comical. Once she composed herself she addressed her son and his response.
“I said that anyone who can eat is capable of loading the dishwasher,” Markey recalls. “He still complains about dishes, but I remind him that it is fair we all help.”
Comments like the one Markey’s son made happen might be thanks to ads for cleaning products mostly featuring women, superhero commercials targeting boys and other subtle messages aimed at today’s youth. Melinda Wenner Moyer, a science journalist who often writes about parenting issues, says despite parents' best efforts, most children, even her own, at some point or another are going to make sexist remarks.
“We jump to worrying am I raising my kid wrong?, but kids are like little social detectives,” Moyer says. “They look at the world around them and they see men usually have more power. That’s the message our culture is sending them.”
She tells Yahoo Life that’s exactly what she did when her daughter, who was 5 at the time, came to her and asked if she could change into a boy. Some gentle questioning led to a deeper explanation.
“She said she would like to be president one day, and girls can’t be president,” Moyer recalls. “My heart broke into a million pieces, but it was clear she had some misconceptions.”
Moyer went to work dispelling those misconceptions without making her daughter feel like she was in the wrong.
“We want to be careful not to snap at them or shame them or make them feel they did something bad,” she says. “It’s totally understandable why they say this. Kids often don’t understand the gravity of what they are saying and how it can be hurtful.”
After taking a deep breath, parents should lead with curiosity, Moyer advises. Ask why they think whatever comment they made, get them talking a little more and then offer information that corrects what they said.
“I said to my daughter, ‘You’re right, we’ve never had a woman president, but absolutely women can be president,’ and I started picking out examples of countries that have female leaders,” Moyer says. “It helps to pull counter examples from their life because then they start to think maybe this all-or-nothing statement isn’t true.”
Moments like this also can be used to encourage perspective and foster empathetic feelings. If a child says something like ‘boys can’t play with dolls,’ ask how a comment like that would make a boy feel if he did play with dolls.
Erin Pahlke, an associate professor at Whitman College with a PhD in educational psychology, says experimental research shows children need explicit instruction on what sexism is.
“Sometimes parents and teachers say, ‘I just want my kids to be nice and I don’t want them to deal with sexism, it’s too heavy of an issue,’” Pahlke tells Yahoo Life. “The reason it matters is we want to raise kids who know what sexism is and respond to it to make the world a more gender-equal place.”
She’s also heard criticism that people are afraid to teach boys about sexism because it could make them feel badly, but her research shows otherwise.
“When you teach boys, their level of guilt goes up just a little bit, and in some ways that’s a positive thing,” Pahlke says. “A little bit of guilt isn’t a terrible thing because it can help you see there is a problem and it can help you make the system better.”
Pahlke echoes what Moyer says, that no matter what parents teach their children, society is sending sexism messages at times. However, Pahlke says if parents start early and use age-appropriate language to talk to children, the message will stick.
“You want to give them the language so that if they are at school and hear, ‘you can’t wear that because it’s a boy’s backpack,’ they will respond and say, ‘no, that’s not right. Anyone can have any backpack they want,’” Pahlke says.
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