First Words: For the Kid's Sake, Watch Your Tongue
by Chelsea Reay
As a society, we’ve never been more aware of gender stereotyping – or wanted to fight it harder. And that battle begins at birth. We dress our children in ‘neutral’ clothes, encourage girls to play with hammers and boys to care for dolls, and teach them that they can be absolutely anything they want to be. But is that enough?
Sadly, the answer is probably no. Because the changes we’re making are completely superficial if we don’t address the biggest elephant in the room: how we talk to our children.
Brushing sexism off with a smile
I have to confess that I have a vested interest in this topic. As a first-time mum to a 10-month old daughter, I’m very aware of how each interaction will potentially shape her as a human being, especially now that she’s making babbling sounds and starting to form the words that she will use for the rest of her life.
Now, despite being a copywriter, I’m not precious about bad grammar, and it’s not uncommon for the odd swear word to slip from my tongue. But what I do object to is people reverting to rhetoric that reinforces the gender stereotypes we are trying so hard to smash.
Let me give you a couple of examples. A few weeks ago during a swimming lesson, my daughter Matilda tried to grab another child’s face. The teacher’s response was to laugh and call her a bully. The following Tuesday I took her to her development check with the health visitor. During a discussion about motor skills I mentioned that Matilda always had a proud grin on her face when she pushed her baby walker across the living room. The health visitor turned to her, smiling, and said ‘you’re a little show-off aren’t you?’
Both these comments were made in jest, but I still don’t find them acceptable. It’s physically impossible for a 10-month-old to have the emotional and physical comprehension to bully another child, and her satisfied smile is probably a reaction to the praise we lavish on her for practicing and refining a new skill. Clearly my baby is outgoing and ambitious, but already people in authority (who both happened to be women) think it’s fine to make comments that belittle her. Would they have used those same words if Matilda was a boy? My gut doesn’t think so.
Sentiment or science?
Being a fiercely protective mother, I wondered whether I was just being too sensitive in finding these comments hurtful, so I turned to the internet for relevant research.
It turns out that the impact of language on children’s identities isn’t just a feeling in the hearts and stomachs of mums and dads; it’s something that has been scientifically tested. A 2017 BBC documentary entitled No More Boys and Girls, which analysed a class of 7-year-olds, found that unconscious sexism was rife within the school environment. Girls were inadvertently referred to as ‘love’ by their teachers, and were offered books about princesses needing to be rescued. Meanwhile their male classmates were the knights in shining armour.
And far from being water off a duck’s back, this rhetoric was directly impacting how the children viewed themselves. Girls were far more likely to call themselves ‘pretty’ or ‘ugly’ when asked to describe their characteristics, rather than mentioning personality attributes, and deferred to boys as being better at analytical tasks, or strength-based subjects like physical education.
This can have a worrying impact on their development. A 2015 study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found that teenage girls lack confidence in their scientific and mathematical abilities, even if they are highly intelligent, while a separate study by Girlguiding found that by the age of 17, only a third of young women feel they will perform as well as their male colleagues in the workplace.
This isn’t to say that the parents of boys have nothing to worry about, however; far from it. The same BBC documentary discovered that the male pupils it featured had significantly more difficulty expressing themselves verbally compared to their female classmates, except when it came to describing words of anger. Without wishing to scaremonger, more than 95% of the UK’s prison population is male – 48% of which are under 29 years-old – while suicide remains the biggest cause of death for men aged 20-49. A lack of confidence in their ability to emote must surely play a role in these saddening statistics.
Speak out – and call out
Mental illness is a big leap from ‘jokingly’ referring to a small child as a show-off, but I truly believe that all children are born a blank canvas, and every interaction in their life will shape their personality. The enormity of this is almost too much to comprehend, and none of us are going to get it right all the time – parent or not – but I do think it’s time we tuned-in our awareness more acutely when it comes to how we converse with the next generation.
For me personally, my experiences to date have taught me a valuable lesson: it’s not enough to think carefully about the way in which you talk to children. You need to have the confidence to call out people who enforce gender stereotypes, even if their intentions aren’t consciously malicious. In some ways, those careless comments can be the most damaging.
Title image by Alyssa Stevenson via Unsplash