Carolyn Hax: Anti-stereotype message needed

February 24, 2014 

Carolyn: My soon-to-be first grader is in a small camp. There happens to be a handful of boys a few years older that he has taken a liking to, and he’s been picking up bad things. The other day he told me, “Girls drink Pepsi, so they can get sexy; boys go to college, so they can get knowledge.”

I know he doesn’t get exactly what he’s saying, but he knows it’s a put-down to girls. I could see this coming out of a 9-year-old, but it really hit me hard coming from a 6-year-old. My husband and I have talked to him about hanging out with good kids, not emulating bad behavior, and that girls are as smart as boys.

I know the road ahead is long, and he’ll be exposed to much, much worse than stupid sayings. But how can I help him tell the “good kids” from “bad kids”?

Anonymous

You can start by staying away from the “good kids”/ “bad kids” mindset. It’s just a branch of the same messed-up tree that produced the girls-are-sexy/boys-are-smart” howler in any of its forms.

People are complicated. Even the ones who aren’t complicated deserve to be treated as individuals, not members of this or that group.

The consistency of your anti-stereotype message is what’s going to make it stick, and, conveniently, just about everything you experience with him is a teaching opportunity for this.

If he’s handed a kids’ menu at a restaurant, for example, assure him he doesn’t have to eat what people assume kids like. Or, ask him his opinion of things instead of just sending opinions one-way, parent to child. Or, when he comes home with another howler he learned from the camp boys, see if you can find an age-appropriate way to help him reason through it.

Teach him to resist stereotyping by teaching him to respect individuality, and teach that by respecting him as an individual. Which brings us back to the good kids/bad kids conceit: That boxes people into roles as surely as the playground rhyme does, and no one deserves that. Certainly not 9-year-olds, who can blossom unforeseeably into fantastic adults — particularly if no one tags them as “bad.”

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