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How to start a conversation with your kids about recognizing and shutting down sexism

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Seeing or hearing sexism in action can have lasting consequences for kids, especially girls who may start placing more emphasis on how they look than on what they have to say. Boys, too, feel the effects of sexism, increasing the likelihood that they’ll develop a sense of masculinity that lacks empathy and respect for the other sex. This is why teaching children how to recognize and shut down sexism is so important. 

Below, find our simple script for specific things you can say and do to help your kids recognize sexism and shut it down when they need to, so they can grow up to appreciate and celebrate the limitless potential of all genders.

It’s never too early to start. 

Kids as young as two begin to develop gender stereotypes. Even if you’re a model parent, outside influences beyond your control will reinforce them (you can’t avoid girls’ clothing sections full of pink dresses, for example). That’s why it’s important to specifically talk about it, so kids don’t end up internalizing false or narrow-minded assumptions about gender.

First, define sexism for kids.

  • Keep it simple.
    “Sexism is when a person is treated unfairly or judged based on their gender.”

Provide examples that are relatable to kids.

Tune kids in to recognizing gender bias by pointing out examples from their daily lives.

  • When people assume that only boys want to play with race cars and only girls want to play with dolls.
  • When people assume women should be nurses or boys should be athletes.
  • When video games depict women as weak or romantic interests, not heroes or rebels.
  • When fairy tales, books, and movies make it seem like the boy always has to rescue the girl (Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, etc.)
  • When someone makes a derogatory comment about a woman’s appearance, or makes an assumption about her because of how she looks.

Correct their language — and yours.

Lots of words, phrases, and habits are so common, it’s easy to forget their built-in gender bias.

  • Avoid describing girls as “sweet” or “pretty” or boys as “tough” or “brave.”
  • Replace gender-specific words like “moms and dads” with “parents and caregivers.”
  • Use gender-neutral job descriptions such as firefighter and lunch worker.
  • Avoid using gender as a reason or excuse for certain behavior, such as when we say “boys will be boys” or “you throw like a girl.”

When you do hear something sexist or belittling, ask your kids if they heard it too, and whether they thought it was OK. You can explain why you don’t find the language fair, accurate, or acceptable.

Encourage your child to stand up for what’s right when they witness sexism.

  • Remind them they don’t have to stay silent or laugh just to be polite.
  • If they feel comfortable speaking out, offer one of these possible responses, depending on the situation:
  1. “What made you say that?”
  2. “You don’t really mean all girls [fill in the blank]?”
  3. “That’s not true/fair/cool.”
  4. “I’d like to hear what she has to say.”

More ways parents can fight sexism with their kids.

  • Ask all your kids to take on similar chores; make sure children of different genders do different jobs.
  • If you provide your children an allowance, keep it equitable. Equal pay begins at home.
  • Point out sexist representations of both girls and boys when you see them in books, TV shows, or movies, and talk about it.
  • Set up playdates and encourage friendships with all genders.
  • In homes with two parents of different genders, split the household duties and caregiving responsibilities, so kids can see equality in action.

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.