University of Kentucky professor writes book on preventing kids' gender stereotypes

agarau@herald-leader.comJuly 5, 2014 

You won't find the Frozen DVD in the home of Christia Spears Brown, an associate professor of developmental psychology at the University of Kentucky.

In fact, you won't find any sign of Disney Princesses, Barbie dolls, or pink toy school buses.

It's not that Brown doesn't want her two daughters to have any fun. She encourages playtime with toys and movies that don't promote gender stereotypes.

In Brown's recent book, Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes (Ten Speed Press, $14.99), she uses scientific research and personal parenting experiences to explain how using gender bias when raising children can affect them negatively later in life.

Brown says she decided to write the book when she noticed an increasing trend of categorizing children based on gender.

"I'm starting to see more and more parents who are misinformed about the differences between the genders," Brown said. "There's a lot of books talking about brain differences and how those lead to learning differences between the two genders. There's also a lot more color coding. Everything is pink and blue."

She's not alone. Lise Eliot is the author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps — And What We Can Do About It, out a few years ago. She also thinks that many American parents might misunderstand gender differences.

"There's no question that claims about gender differences get more press. Sex differences are sexy, so they're what parents will see in their parenting magazines and in their morning TV shows," Eliot said.

Brown recognizes that there are key differences between the sexes from birth, but she says she has found that there aren't nearly as many as most people think.

"There has been a really impressive meta-analysis of a lot of different studies that compiled research on 1.5 million kids. It lets you see that there are actually very few gender differences in children," she said. "There's no differences in math abilities or who talks more or less, and they're not at all different in terms of sadness or happiness or how angry or emotional they get."

So how are they different?

According to that analysis, two main ways: Boys are less able to suppress inappropriate responses, and they tend to be slightly more exuberant.

Brown explained that most of the other differences between girls and boys probably come from societal influences.

"Starting with birth, we label gender constantly: 'What a smart girl,' 'what a good boy.' We are always pointing out gender to children," she said. "Because of this constant labeling by Mom and Dad, kids get the impression that gender must be really, really important and they feel like they better pay attention to what it means to be a good girl or a good boy."

By age 3, children have been found to pay more attention to stereotypes than adults. Their desire to fit into the typical girl and boy descriptions can influence their behavior as they grow up.

"For boys, the push to be aggressive is really dangerous. Their toys are typically guns and action figures, things that encourage violence and aggression," she said. "They also learn not to express sadness because 'boys aren't supposed to cry.' Then in men and adolescent males, we see that they are less likely to talk about their emotions and instead express their anger or sadness through violence or aggression."

The impact is different for girls. Brown said this early recognition of gender stereotypes could be one of the causes of women's inequality.

"With girls, we see them trying to channel the pretty princess stereotypes," she said. "They're supposed to be smart but they're also supposed to be pretty and wait on the man to save them.

So by middle school, a majority of girls aren't happy with their bodies."

Eliot also thinks that stereotypes could be holding girls back.

"People have this deep need to say, 'Ah, that's just the way they're born. There's nothing we can do about it,'" she said. "When really if you would like to see less of a pay gap and more women in sciences and leadership positions, this is the best place to start."

When one of Brown's daughters became interested in the princesses, Brown asked her what she liked so much about the movies. Her daughter responded that she loved the "pretty sparkly clothes."

"I was like, 'I don't have a problem with that!' So I looked for another character with pretty clothes and I came upon Wonder Woman. She wears sparkly stuff and has a tiara but she actually does things and she fights the bad guys," Brown said. "It's not rejecting what they like, it's just trying to find more positive ways to incorporate it."

Along with avoiding princesses and dolls that set unrealistic body standards for girls, Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue offers other tips for parents who want to avoid gender bias.

Brown suggests that parents avoid having same-sex birthday parties, refer to children as "kids" or call them by name instead of using "girls and boys," steer clear of single-sex schools, and try to incorporate all kinds of toys into kids' playtimes.

"When I'm buying toys I don't think about the fact that I have girls, I think about what kinds of traits I want them to develop," Brown said. "All kids should have dolls because we want all kids to be empathetic, and all kids should have Legos because they help with spatial abilities."

Brown says she is not advocating that people should completely ignore gender; she suggests they think about it less, especially when making decisions about their children.

"For me, gender is like height. It's a part of who I am, and it impacts me in some ways. Like I probably won't be a basketball player and I can't lift my bag into the overhead bin in an airplane because I'm short," she said. "But my gender, like my height, doesn't define me as a person. It's just one of my many characteristics."

The book is targeted at all parents, especially those with younger children. Brown also hopes that teachers and anyone else who works with kids will read the book to learn about how to reduce stereotypes in the classroom.

Brown thinks that this different approach to parenting has made her daughters more interesting kids.

"They both like girl activities and they both like boy activities. One of my girls wants to be a firefighter like her dad and always wears her Minnie Mouse dress with her firefighter hat," she said. "It's important to focus on what your individual child's individual strengths are instead of what the strengths of their gender are 'supposed to be.'"

Annie Garau: (859) 231-1685 Twitter: @agarau6

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