Adapted from a recent online discussion.
DEAR 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.
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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”?
DEAR 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, rhymed on non-.
People are complicated. Even the ones who somehow aren’t complicated deserve to be treated as individuals, not members of this or that group.
So your message to your 6 (and then 7 and then 8 and on and on)-year-old needs to be that it’s not right to put people in groups. Everyone’s different and everyone deserves the chance to be what he or she wants. Boys can be sexy and drink Pepsi! Heck, girls can drink Pepsi, be sexy and go to college, or none of the above if that’s what floats their boats. I just caution against going to Jupiter to get more stupider.
You do have to be careful not to take every little thing too seriously, lest you become easy for him to tune out. If he hasn’t picked up the anti-parental eye-roll yet, expect it soon.
But 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. (And ask him to define “sexy” for you. Reminding kids occasionally not to use words unless they know what they mean isn’t the worst thing, and can save you both some red faces.)
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 — especially if no one tags them as “bad.”