Feminist Friday: Early Childhood and Culture

A few weeks ago I wrote a post titled “Early Childhood Learning is About Parents.” That turned into a discussion about how to deal with the fact that children learn by imitating the people who take care of them. Today I want to look at the same issue from another angle. Children also learn from whatever larger culture they happen to be born into. They don’t just imitate the people who feed and clothe them. They also imitate people they encounter at school and people they see on television. In this post I’ll share a couple of anecdotes about things I’ve had to do to try and counteract attitudes with my six-year-old grandson that could turn into sexism if we didn’t talk about them honestly.

First, a conversation we had in a McDonald’s a few months ago. We were on the road and stopped there to take a break. A family with three small children was there. One of the children was a girl, but we couldn’t tell that for sure. We could only see their backs. The girl had long hair, but was dressed in exactly the same style as her brothers. From where we were standing, she could have been a long-haired little boy. The three of them were looking at the display of happy meal toys and talking about which ones they liked. Here’s a conversation I had with my grandson, who was watching them intently.

Grandson: Is that a girl or a boy?

Me: I can’t tell from here, but a girl, I think.

Grandson: She has long hair . . .

Me: That doesn’t mean anything. Some boys have long hair. I used to have hair that long.

Grandson: I don’t think that’s a girl. They’re all wanting the toys that are for boys.

Me: Some girls like the ones that are for boys better. And look at those toys. The ones they’re wanting are cooler than those ones that are supposed to be for girls.

Grandson: That can’t be a girl. Look at the shoes! (He’s referring to a pair of orange running shoes, identical to the ones the boys are wearing).

Me: Dude! You can’t tell if someone’s a girl just by looking at their tennis shoes. Girls like all kinds of colors.

Grandson: Oh.

I understand the confusion about the hair. He’s not seen that many men with long hair aside from celebrities. The jumping to the conclusions about the preference in toys and the color of the shoes really bugs me, though. The thing that bothers me most about it is that those are such natural assumptions, and I think they’re such natural assumptions because of the way consumer goods are marketed on television. We picked up our order and got back on the road, but that conversation continued while we drove the next 20 miles. It went on for so long because I had to make sure he understood that not all girls want the pink shoes and the toys that are marketed for girls, even though there’s nothing wrong with those things.

The second thing I’ve noticed is that he responds to female authority figures differently than he responds to male authority figures. He’s a high-spirited, sassy little dude. Under the best circumstances, he takes a lot of wrangling and he doesn’t like to be told what to do. But he doesn’t roll his eyes at me or answer my questions in a dismissive tone of voice nearly so often as he does that to my wife, Vicki.

I’ve been observing this for a while now. There are lots of differences in the way Vicki and I deal with him, but none that should cause him to be more dismissive of her authority than he is of mine. Vicki’s not a passive person at all, and she commands respect. Even so, I’ve had to have conversations with him about it at times and let him know, specifically, that we expect him to show his mother and his grandmother the same respect he shows me and his dad.

Now, undoubtedly he’s learned some of that attitude from watching people who aren’t as sensitive to this stuff as me, but I think he’s learned a lot of it from television. That’s troubling, because there’s no real escape from mass media. Even if I were willing to unplug all the devices and only allow him a movie every once in awhile, that wouldn’t be good for him. Understanding technology and being able to talk about movies, tv shows, etc. are both key parts of literacy, so just shutting off the mass media would put him at a disadvantage. And no matter how well you vet the programs themselves, you can’t control the advertisements. That’s a problem, if you’re a feminist and you’re trying to get a young child off to a good start in life, because advertisements are very much a mixed bag.

I’m curious to know how other people might handle situations like this. Is there anything I can do, other than being hypervigilant and talk about these sorts of things when they occur?



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  1. Both of my comments related to this are from working as a camp counselor this summer.
    1. I’ve noticed that, like you mentioned with your grandson, the boys respond far less respectfully to the female counselors than to the male counselors. The girls respond about equally to males as females, but the boys listen better, respond quicker, and are more excited by activities when a male counselor is directing. On a similar note, we have a “counselor of the week” cape that gets passed on to whoever last had the cape deems did an above-and-beyond job with the kids that week. For the first four weeks, that cape was worn by male counselors. This week is the fifth week and it was finally bequeathed to a female counselor. While I do think the male counselors are doing a great job, I have a feeling that their actions seem “above and beyond” because of the lower expectations we place on men to care for children. A mediocre male counselor is regarded more highly than a mediocre female counselor, simply because males aren’t expected to be AS good with kids.
    2. One of my campers said that she was going to dress as a Pink Lady for Halloween. I asked her if she’d seen Grease, and she said no, but planned to watch it before she ordered her costume. I jumped in to tell her, “You know, the message of Grease at the end is that you should change yourself to make a boy like you. Be aware of that, because if a boy doesn’t like you just how you are he isn’t worth it.” She nodded and fairly enthusiastically agreed that changing yourself to suit a guy’s interests is ridiculous, but I wonder if she’ll remember that when she finally does watch the movie.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is interesting. Thanks for sharing it. The issue of male & female counselors (or teachers) being evaluated differently for the same job tasks is probably something we should discuss at some point.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Just touching on the mass media aspect… Commercials are awful. They make you want a bunch of stuff you have no actual reason to want, and they do it by harping on stereotypes of what people should be and do and have. We never watched live TV at my house when I was a kid, and we still don’t, I just do it when I’m dogsitting or at friends’ houses, etc. I find after a couple days my thought patterns have noticeably changed, and not for the better. Now I make sure to mute the commercials and have a book or website to look at while they’re on. (A part of that comes from just watching crap because it’s on, even when I don’t like it… I stopped doing that and the effect is lessened, but still present if I watch the commercials during the shows I I enjoy.) So, I very much recommend fast-forwarding commercials, muting them, and/or watching DVDs/Netflix/whatever in lieu of live TV.

    Beyond that, my experience interacting with kids as an adult is extremely limited. I’ll just agree with everyone else and say identifying problems, discussing them, and getting kids to understand why they’re wrong is the way to go. Once something is revealed as nonsensical, it starts to stand out rather than just be accepted as fact.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Good point about the revelation of nonsense.

      I think you are correct about the television and the thought patterns. I didn’t have a tv in my house until I got married. Didn’t want one. Then for years I was a heavy tv consumer. The blogs have gotten me mostly off the TV for the last few months, so now I am wondering if that’s change the way I think ๐Ÿ™‚

      I had a professor once who had a sign on the door that said “Television is chewing gum for the brain.” Political communication and especially campaign advertising, was one of his areas of interest. I’d not thought about the muting of the commercials as a way of mitigating the tv effect, though. That’s very interesting.


      1. Yeah, I wanted to be clear I’m not talking about -shows.- A lot of TV is pointless crap, but people tend to be automatically dismissive of anything related to pop culture, and that’s not my point at all.

        I actually read a bit about marketing a while ago, cross-section of watching Mad Men, taking an intro class on media, and working in ebook publishing. After that it was really interesting how muting the commercials makes their strategies completely obvious. Without the chatter, you can see exactly what they’re trying to do. So, I mute them and then flip through my art book or skim my social media or whatever, I don’t mute them and then sit and watch them anyway. Really I avoid live TV in general, but when it’s available I do like to watch some of the things I don’t normally have. It just kind of shocked me how miserable the commercials were making me after prolonged exposure, and what a shallow vision of life they provide.

        All that to say, of course other people don’t relate to media the way I do, it may vary widely. But I think commercials are awful either way.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Great post! One thing it made me think about is that I don’t remember McDonald toys being quite as gendered as they are now. I mean I remember little fries and burgers that transformed in to creatures and the tiny toons vehicles were the best. I just don’t recall them being separated just random.

    I do not have kids so it is difficult for me to really have an answer for this. I think the important thing is talking about it and setting examples. Also, my parents at least would tell my friends if they found something inappropriate. When we were in their house if they heard language they found disrespectful they would call it out.

    Mass media is a huge issue but some of it is talking about it. My parents believed in watching things with is kids and then talking about it. As the youngest I got to watch rated R movies early on because my mom did not want to punish the older siblings. At the same time she did not just let me watch. She was willing to talk about things.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I don’t think they were quite so gendered back in the day. I was the oldest and the only child in the family for awhile, so I didn’t get to watch the R-rated movies ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

      I agree that talking about the mass media messages is important. That’s come up several times today.


  4. Thank you, G. for loving our little guy so much and caring about the man he will become. Thank you to all who have commented, we value the input.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Thanks, everyone, for stopping by and commenting!

    I’ve just plain had a crazy week, and Diana’s frolicking on the beach with children, is why the responses haven’t happened today.

    I’ll be back to check in and chat here after I go pick up a couple of pizzas and eat one of them.


    Liked by 2 people

  6. All three of my kids respond to my husband a little differently than they do me. I used to fret about it when my son was a toddler. But I made sure they knew they had to respect me. This takes time, of course. I really do chalk the difference up to the fact that my husband has about 8 inches on me and his voice is naturally more intimidating. I have always told myself that it was just a size and personality thing. I have a soft voice and tend to be pretty easygoing.

    I honestly think explaining these things as they come up is the best approach. I can say now, having a 13 year old son who is very sensitive and aware, that I think this method works. The world/ media/ other people will give you plenty of opportunities to explain these things. But your grandson will absorb what you and Vicki and his parents tell him and that will override the outside influences. When my son called a friend “Gay” I had to explain the meaning behind it and how that word can be used in a hurtful way. He had no idea and was mortified to think he had said something derogatory. I swear, almost weekly there’s a conversation that I have to have to explain something they see or hear. I’m just grateful that they still come to me with these questions. I think that’s the crucial thing, them being comfortable asking you the questions when they are confused and not feeling ashamed.

    And I must say I completely agree with you, that you can’t completely insulate them from the media. I know some parents who try to keep their kids in a “bubble” with these things. Eventually they will have to hear and see all of these things. I would rather them do it when I can explain it to them. I would rather them be able to explain to their friends why it’s wrong to do or say certain misogynistic or derogatory things than to be dumbfounded and confused. The most pride you will feel is when you hear your grandson repeat some of these things that your’e teaching him to his friendsโ€ฆ. It sounds like he has a wonderful group of people raising him to be a good and kind hearted person!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. We’re trying. I’m constantly explaining things, and he’s not shy about asking the questions.

      I hope you’re right about us overriding the influences, because that’s really all we can do. My grandson is very sensitive, too, and he seems to have a gift for empathy, which bodes well, I think.


  7. I think you have said the right things. His reaction is sexist and I mean no disrespect. You all will have to stay vigilant. He is getting this from friends, teachers or tv. Good luck to you. Hugs, Barbara

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I can’t comment too much on the authority issue, because my friend’s kids (with whom I was the stand-in second parental figure because their fathers were not around) never had male authority figures at home to compare with. Overall they viewed me as the disciplinarian/no-nonsense one and their mom was the one they might be able to dismiss or ignore.

    With the boy/girl marketing issue, we just basically made sure to keep offering ALL toy and clothing/color options to all the kids and reminding them that people had different tastes.

    Our group of friends was pretty diverse. We had people from all kinds of backgrounds that we hung out with, and I think several of our male friends were sporting long hair back then. One of my nephews had hair down to the middle of his neck, and I think it’s shoulderlength now. He’s in college.

    I remember them asking why they heard other kids using the word “gay” as an insult when they were younger, but I also caught the older boy doing that himself when he hit pre-teens.so, at that point I think he was doing a lot of things that he really knew better than to do in order to fit in with his friends, and we had to deal with that issue.

    The kids knew that -I- liked the “boy” cartoons and collected the “boy toys” as well as the “girl” things, so I don’t think there was ever much of an issue about “boy things” and “girl things,” but we probably did have a few of those types of conversations you had with your grandson. When that happened we would just go, “There aren’t girl toys and boy toys…Auntie Rose likes the race cars too” or whatever. (It helps that Auntie Rose was probably BUYING the happy meal with the “boy” toy if she hadn’t done so already…)

    The one issue I clearly remember is that the kids kept referring to the peach crayons in the big box as “skin color,” no matter how many times we reminded them that skin came in lots of colors, so eventually we bought a box of crayons that were specifically marketed as skintones in order to show them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! This is very helpful, especially the part about how you dealt with the toy issue. That’s just such a huge problem, because of the marketing messages.


      1. I haven’t had TV in the house in about 8 years, so I’ve no idea about current commercials or anything, but from the thread it sounds like you’re right.

        If I had kids now I would probably limit TV viewing to one or two shows they could pick each day. We always did more videos (which would be DVDs or Netflix now, I guess.) than live TV, but each kid did have a favorite show or something that I’d watch with them. (Knew more about the early Pokemon than I really ever wanted to. _._)


  9. Just letting you know there’s a typo in the title — “feminst.” I’ll be thinking about this today and possibly coming back with a relevant comment, I just figured that was an important word for searching. ๐Ÿ™‚


  10. I don’t have children and live in a sort of childfree-by-choice community of our own creation, but since I now have a niece and a lot of my friends back home have children, I anticipate having to have these conversations at some point, especially given that I’m queer and androgynous myself. I’m really enjoying reading the post and comments to learn about verbally dealing with small children.

    I will say that I’ve noticed and read that preschool-age kids have an obsessive tendency to want to categorize things (I’m a boy, are you a girl?) to make sense of their place, but there’s the additional “I’m a boy because reasons” layer that gets added it. (Actual early-childhood parents, teachers, and scholars, please feel free to correct me.) Thank you for hosting and posting!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They do categorize things obsessively. My grandson’s past the obsession with the categories himself, which lasted until he was 5 or so, and now he’s into the “why” stage. I don’t know much about early childhood in the scholastic sense. Most of what I know is from doing what works, and for most of my life, I’ve had at least one young child around, starting when I was an adolescent.

      I use age-appropriate vocabulary, but for the most part, I interact with them the way I do everyone else. Look them in the eye, listen, look for cues to see if they’re understanding me, and so forth. Children respond really well to me. Kids I don’t even know walk up to me in the grocery store and start up conversations. It’s always been that way. I think it’s because something about my body language and facial expressions sends them a message that I notice them, but I don’t really know. It’s just a little quirk of mine.


  11. My son is faster to follow my directives than my wife’s, but for the moment I’m attributing that to thirteen years of teaching experience. She is a better parent than I am in virtually every way EXCEPT for this one; I’m conditioned to expect compliance when I tell someone to do something, or at least to sound like it, and am also better about being consistent in how to tell him to do stuff and explain consequences. Plus: teacher voice. I suspect the difference won’t last, but I’m going to be keeping a close eye on how he behaves around my mom as opposed to my dad.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yeah, the teacher voice is effective. When my mom busts out with the teacher voice, even adults respect it.

      I’ve spent a lot of time watching how the grandson interacts with a lot of different male/female couples who are authority figures. He’s got two sets of grandparents and two sets of great, so there’s lots to observe there. The pattern is obvious to me at this point, but it’s manageable. If didn’t notice it until he was 13, I don’t think it would be.


  12. I think you’re on the right track with your grandson and I am very impressed that you are going to such lengths to try to teach him. It’s a lot more than many parents I know would do. Kudos to you!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! We do try. I want him to grow up to be a good person and have a chance of living up to his potential. And do this stuff for his children and grandchildren. I believe that has to start the minute they’re born.


  13. So interesting and so true. My son has always worn his hair a bit long and in growing up with a rock music background, he accepts adrogyny better than most (re the long hair and stereotyping on that sense.) I do feel, though , that he responds better to my husband as a disciplinarian and rather than trying to break down that stereotype, I encourage my husband to back me up on disciplining our son, and even having his own talks with our son when both of us feel there is a problem, although I dint know if that’s the best solution. It may just reinforce his notions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think backing one another up is very important. Vicki and I are careful to stay on the same page and be sure that one of us doesn’t counter the other’s decisions.

      I have my own talks too, when I think it’s necessary. For the most part, Once the discipline starts, our policy is to let whomever started it handle it. But the one who doesn’t say anything while it’s going on ALWAYS brings it up later to reinforce the lesson.


      1. Right, see the whole , ‘whoever started it can handle it thing’ …sometimes I feel like unless my husband says something, it may be a joke to my son, if you know what I mean. Of course it also depends on how serious the issue is. But if it’s something pretty serious, sometimes I feel like unless my husband has a word with my son, it doesn’t really drive it home.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. If it’s serious enough, I definitely have the word. What I was really meaning is that I try to be careful not to intervene in a way that gives him the idea that Vicki’s authority comes from me. And she doesn’t generally say she’s going to tell me while she’s doing the correction, unless it’s a situation that involves me in a way that she needs to make a point about honesty.

          Usually, i get the information privately and bring it up with him at the earliest appropriate opportunity.


  14. Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk and repeat, in my experience. More importantly, make them think rather than talking AT them.

    My older daughter has come home with all kinds of absurd things that didn’t come from either parent (“Boys are smarter than girls because they’re bigger.” “That’s a boy color.” “That’s so gay.”) What I’ll do is to tell both girls, emphatically, that they’re wrong, and then use the girls themselves as counterexamples. For example, this was the conversation I had with her about the first absurdity:

    “Clarice, didn’t you say you were one of the only kids who got the whole math challenge right?”
    “Do you think you’re not as smart as the boys in your class then?”
    “Was it only boys who got the whole math challenge right?”
    “So who got it right? Only boys? Only girls?”
    “Actually, there were both boys and girls.”
    Then she did this thing where she screwed up her face, and put her finger on her chin and tapped it a few times, and said, “I guess they can be the same smart.”

    Or something as simple as “You’re wearing a blue shirt. Are you a boy?”

    Sometimes you just have to keep repeating. I think I had to have the gay-is-not-a-bad-word-if-used-as-what-it-means-like-‘tall’-or-‘Asian’-or-‘female’-and-not-to-be-used-pejoratively-ever talk 3 times before it took hold. I’ll let you know how it all turns out in about 10 years.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Thanks! It’s helpful to get a take on it from someone who deals with this stuff with girls. I haven’t had a little girl to interact with since Diana & I grew up, so my frame of reference is mostly for boys.

      Yes to the repetition. I have to do it all the time.

      That’s a helpful tip, using the kids themselves to talk about examples to counter the absurdity.


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