By the age of 3, children already have an awareness of gender stereotypes and societal power dynamics.
"Kids start to know … who’s strong, who is weak, who likes to cry, who’s aggressive. You start to see girls deferring to boys for things — and boys assuming they are in charge,” said Christia Spears Brown, a developmental psychologist and the author of "Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes."
In the midst of the #MeToo movement, experts are drawing lines from the culture of sexual harassment to the gender norms laid out in childhood. And they're trying to explain the early role parents can have in shifting society.
Coming into the world without language, babies are constantly looking for patterns to understand everything around them. Research shows that when we constantly use gender to label and sort or color code, it leads children to focus on it more and look for differences, often leading to the formation of gender stereotypes. So, with her own daughters, Brown avoids phrases like, “Good morning, girls!”
"I just try to say gender is not the most important thing about people, so I’m not going to constantly label it," she said. "Some people think you raise your kid gender neutral, but it’s not. It’s really just helping them recognize a stereotype when they see it. You have to be aware of it to battle it."
Media and books play a part in the formation of stereotypes – with images commonly of boys doing the action and adventure and girls being more passive. Parents often treat sons and daughters differently.
"I don’t think any parent does it purposefully, but their own implicit biases of what girls and boys are like seem to shape how they treat kids," said Spears Brown. "Boys are played much more rough and tumble with their parents, girls are treated much more delicately, and kids seem to detect those messages."
Long before the #MeToo movement took off, Brown has thought about the links between development in childhood and adolescence and sexual harassment. Her research shows that rates of harassment – unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, unwanted touching – are rampant in middle school.
"And yet girls are taught to be nice and not rock the boat," she said.
By the end of high school, 90 percent of girls have been sexually harassed at least once – name calling, unwanted contact or bullying. Some programs aim to intervene with middle school boys and educate them about consent, but there are ways to break the cycle earlier with age-appropriate conversations.
As with most parenting topics, there’s no silver bullet in this space, but child safety expert Pattie Fitzgerald believes that teaching boys and girls to trust their instincts and speak out when they feel uncomfortable or unsafe is a piece of the puzzle.
Her organization, called Safely Ever after, which focuses on keeping children safe from predators. Since 2001, Fitzgerald has been going around to schools and child care centers sharing her Super-Ten Safe-Smarts Rules with parents and kids.
The first rule she wants children to know: I am the boss of my own body!
“You start out with your kid is four telling them they’re the boss of their bodies, but that really carries on to when they’re 24 and 34 and 44 and 84,” said Fitzerald. “At 20 years old, I still remind my daughter she’s the boss of her body. She went to Coachella this year and I was like, 'Marissa, don’t forget you’re the boss of your body.' And she was like ‘Oh my God, mom, I got it!’ ”
Her other rules include, "I don't keep secrets from my parents," and "I always listen to my own inner voice, especially if I get an 'uh-oh' feeling."
Lately more parents have been asking in her sessions have asked about how to empower their daughters and make sure they are safe out in the world. She sees her safety tips as a bridge to build confident adults who are able to speak out.
"Hopefully that’s what my work does, is that it makes that connection that when your children are young, we’re empowering them to watch out for tricky people and know what’s appropriate," Fitzgerald said. "But that carries over to when they’re young adults and they’re interacting with other people who may or may not have power over them."
The doctor's office is a great place to start conversations about body anatomy and autonomy.
"Around the time when we get to children who are fully potty-trained, I usually start talking to parents about who should be checking, what kind of touch is OK, what do you do if you have a concern," said Dr. Ashaunta Anderson, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and an AltaMed clinic in South Gate.
She uses the well-child checks, the physicals for young children, as an opportunity to encourage parents to talk to their children about identifying boundaries and enforcing them. She recommends that parents teach their kids the names of their genitals, just like they would any other body part, so they feel comfortable talking about them. The American Academy of Pediatrics lists this as one way to prevent abuse.
And when parents normalize these conversations, Dr. Anderson said, the easier it is to have a natural progression to talking about safe sex and consent.
"Socialization – in general, how we teach our children to interact with others in society and in the world – is a parent’s job and we do it at all stages of a child’s life, so this is just another part of it."
Now, as you know if you’ve ever talked to a preschooler, they are constantly making observations and coming to their own (often outlandish) conclusions, so they will inevitably form stereotypes.
"It’s a good idea always to find out what a child has heard and what their ideas are because they might have misconceptions," said Doni Whitsett, a a clinical professor at the University of Southern California School of Social Work. "You never know how particularly little children process what they’ve seen in movies and what they’ve heard, so that parents and teachers can clarify."
Parents and those working with young children should seize opportunities to point out stereotypes and give counter examples. Brown started having conversations like this with her pirate-loving daughter when she was three years old.
"If the pirate birthday party theme was in the boy aisle, I would say, 'It’s a shame they put this in the boy aisle, because anybody can like pirates – both boys and girls like pirates.' "
Brown says, while they won’t understand rants again the patriarchy, they can understand concrete examples.
"If you point that out to them, it helps them correct the patterns that you’re seeing," said Brown. "It is hard but it’s not impossible and I think the importance of it makes it worth the effort."