The language we use when speaking to our children forms part of their world view, shaping their perceptions of themselves and others (Barrett, Lindquist & Gendron, 2007). If we want to raise children who have a shot at gender equality, we need to consider our language choices.
There are some common phrases that are detrimental to both boys and girls. Avoiding these sentences can go some way towards raising children who can look after themselves and others, regardless of gender.
“Boys don’t cry.”
Which is bullshit, because they do, as any parent of a toddler knows! Research has found that boys and girls cry equal amounts up until the teenage years (Hoyt, 2008). Telling boys to keep their emotions in check, or at least out of sight, does them a great disservice.
Suicide rates for men are four times higher than women, with gender differences often being cited as a cause (Beaton & Forster, 2012). If we tell our boys that crying and being sad is not ok, this doesn’t mean those feelings disappear. They don’t. They just get pushed down, and feelings are not very good at being pushed down. Feelings fight back. Boys need to be sad so they can grow up to be men who know what sad feels like, what it looks like, and how to deal with it (Beaton & Forster, 2012).
I have no problem with telling my children they rock. They’re funny, brave, kind, and I adore them. But I don’t say ‘good girl’ to my daughter. Partly because whenever it’s been said to me as an adult it makes me angry, also because it’s so often used to praise compliance.
Good girls make things easier for everyone around them, they think of others and let’s face it, they just do what they’re told. This is not an admirable list of attributes, it’s more than a bit sickening. It’s one dimensional.
And what happens to the girls who are not compliant? Are they bad? My daughter is fierce and competitive and she has every right to exert those attributes. She is not a “good girl,” she is not a “bad girl,” she is just a girl.
“Boys will be boys.”
Children of all ages will do ridiculous things. They hurl themselves off things that clearly no one should hurl themselves off of, they attempt to ride cats who are quietly napping (that did not end well), and they look you straight in the eye while you say, “Don’t do that!” and then, they do it.
This phrase is a double whammy as it both presumes that boys will do crappy things and frees them of responsibility. There are consequences to actions; every child needs to be taught how to handle those consequences.
“She’s just complaining.”
A study conducted by Wolfe and Powell found that both genders complain at equal rates (2006). However, women complain as a request for action, whereas men were more likely to use complaining as a way to excuse behavior (Wolfe & Powell, 2006). This makes me wonder if the reason women and girls learn to indirectly request help is because if they directly ask they risk being labelled as the equally problematic “bossy.” Kind of a no-win situation.
Pay attention when girls talk, don’t discredit their communication. Teach them that what they have to say matters.
Feminism isn’t about boys doing laundry as often as girls, it’s about keeping everyone safe. In short, words become worlds. Given how important language is for gender equality, let’s not screw it up.