Girls start learning about gender stereotypes as young as 5

Here’s how we can help them unlearn them.

Girls start learning about gender stereotypes as young as 5

Something shifts for girls between the ages of five and six. Research shows that while a kindergarten girl will tell you girls are “really, really smart,” by first grade girls are more likely to give that designation to boys only.


A growing body of research proves girls are learning some problematic lessons as early as preschool, but as our children’s first teachers, we can help them unlearn them, too.

Other studies indicate that it’s not just attitudes about intelligence that are impacted at an early age, but just about everything that could factor into a little girl’s self esteem.

Here are the lessons we DON’T want to teach our daughters:

That “girl” is a bad word

Language matters more than people think, and our kids are always listening. When adults in their lives suggest that girls or women are bad at something, or use gendered language as an insult, children get the message loud and clear.

According to a study published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise, the phrase “runs like a girl” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When girls are told that girls are bad at something, they’re going to go into whatever it is already thinking they’re going to be bad at it.

Girls aren’t born thinking that that there’s anything bad about the way they run—we teach them that cliché, but if we make more deliberate decisions about the language we use we can challenge it, too.

That only one type of body is beautiful

Research indicates girls as young as five believe the ideal body is a thin one, and will start dieting to reach that goal, and a recent survey found only 46% of girls worldwide reported high levels of body esteem.

According to Common Sense Media, parents can counteract unrealistic body ideals by being mindful of the way we talk about our own bodies (which is not just good for our kids’ self-esteem, but our own, too) and by choosing media content that features diverse characters rather than the standard skinny princess all the time.

That being pretty is the most important thing

Many little girls love pretty things, and many parents love to buy pretty little dresses. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with liking glittery outfits, but because media messaging and societal expectations objectify girls by default, it’s important to stress to our kids that while pretty things are fun, our kids are so much more than pretty.

Research suggests that when girls internalize the prevalent cultural idea that women are defined by their looks, they have less resilience and more fear and shame. The best antidotes to self-objectification include athletic pursuits that focus on competency over appearance, and media literacy. (It’s never too early to point out bad photoshop.)

Here’s a new lesson we DO want to teach:

Gender stereotypes are just stereotypes

Gender neutral baby gear is trendy because it’s financially savvy for those planning multiple kids, and also because it just kind of makes sense to let kids figure out who they are and what they like before putting them in a blue or pink box.

However, we do still live in a world where stores separate “girls toys” and “boys toys,” so even if they’ve grown up in a grey and yellow nursery, kids are being conditioned to see themselves as belonging in one toy aisle or the other.

One study found kids little kids are soaking up clues related to gender differences in a quest to figure out where they fit in their universe. They form their own conclusions based on “gendered cues in their social worlds,” so things like toy aisles and media messaging (thanks for only making one girl dog, Paw Patrol) impact their self perception.

To counteract that kind of messaging and prevent our girls from putting limits on their own potential, parents should have conversations about gender stereotypes and challenge them early and often.

The world is teaching little girls some problematic lessons, but parents can take control of the curriculum and help girls keep seeing themselves as “really, really smart.”

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