As I write the introductory post for my new Psychology Today blog, the beginning of another school year has abruptly arrived. Yesterday was my two-year-old’s first day of her new preschool. While my little one, Grace, clung to my leg and tentatively surveyed her surroundings, a very loud and outgoing boy roared around the room. The teacher, who is delightful in every other way, matter-of-factly stated that “Boys just bound into the room exploring, while girls are more timid and take their time.” This was meant to be reassuring to the parent in me, but the developmental psychologist in me (who, by the way, studies gender stereotypes) was frustrated and slightly annoyed. Why did a simple, well-intentioned statement make me so frustrated?
Mainly, because it was simply incorrect. Somehow, the teacher was ignoring the only other boy at preschool that morning. How could he be ignored? Oh, because he was outside, crying with his mom, refusing to even approach the building. That little tidbit seems important when making a claim about boys‘ boldness.
And, indeed, these bold statements about boys and girls are never true. Granted, you have heard them thousands of times. “You know how boys are,” “Oh, aren’t you glad you have girls?,” or “I dread raising teenage girls.” I have been told by the important adults in my children’s lives, often teachers, that boys are messy, rowdy, strong, and girls cry, like to cook, are quiet, and have good manners. An entire industry is built on a mars-venus concept of boys and girls.
Hearing them repeatedly, however, does not make them true. Yes, we are drawn to trying to predict how “all” boys will act or how “all” girls will act. It makes the world (and classroom) a more reliable place. The problem is that not all boys act the same and not all girls act the same. My own rowdy, loud, laugh-at-fart-jokes daughters are enough evidence for that. But, research has also shown us, to keep our predictions and stereotypes intact, we do some fancy mental tricks.
To help us believe that our predictions are always accurate, we are good at forgetting any exceptions to our rules, just like the teacher who overlooked the boy in hysterics outside of preschool. Hundreds of studies have shown this phenomenon. In one example, researchers read stories to study participants in which either a male or female student lost a math contest. Overwhelmingly, participants forgot the details in the story that didn’t fit their gender stereotype and added details that strengthened their preconceived notions. For example, 89% of the people in the study forgot that the male math student cried and 83% forgot that the female student beat a pillow in frustration. Plus, half of the study participants completely made up new information to fit their stereotype, falsely remembering the female as pouting and complaining and the male as playing violent video games.
This is important to parents if your child is different from the norm in any little way. And the reality is that most kids are! The teacher, however, is often unsure of how to handle them. For example, it is hard to soothe a sensitive boy who is crying if you don’t recognize that sensitivity and heightened emotions are a normal male trait (and research with male infants shows it is perfectly normal).
It also matters because your kids’ unique qualities may be overlooked or simplified. Using Grace as an example, if the teacher assumes she is a timid, proper girl, she won’t be prepared when Grace’s true nature comes out, which usually happens about 10 minutes after arrival. She is shy at first, but she quickly shifts to bold and fearless (and potentially dangerous on more than one occasion). A teacher who quickly pegs her as a “typical girl” won’t be prepared for the very small child scaling the 10-feet-high jungle gym.
What is a parent to do? Sometimes, I try to delicately point out instances that don’t fit the stereotype I just heard. I responded to the teacher yesterday, “Well, my oldest daughter would attack a room right away. She never met a stranger.”
More often, I try to emphasize the ways in which my own daughters don’t fit the stereotype and I try to highlight their unique qualities. I want the teacher to be aware that Grace is fearless once she is comfortable, so that the teacher can help maximize that strength instead of overlook it. If I had a sensitive boy, I would tell the teacher how he likes to be soothed. This gets even more important as kids age, especially if you have a computer-whiz daughter or a poetry-writing son.
It doesn’t have to be a political statement about gender stereotypes. It is sometimes as simple as highlighting to teachers that you are raising an individual, not a stereotype.