Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Fear and Loathing in Middle School: Stepping outside of gender norms

One of the reasons that gender stereotyped media and marketing bothers me is that it sets expectations for acceptable behaviors regarding gender. Given what we know about how media shapes our expectations about reality, without a doubt these highly gendered portrayals are impacting children.

Stepping outside of gender norms in appearance is clearly difficult for most children. They will be mistaken for the opposite sex, they will likely be teased, even adults may say well-meaning but hurtful things. But what about stepping outside of expectations for your gender in terms of skills or future plans? That may not seem like such a big deal, right?

Once children reach adolescence, there is a lot of pressure to fit in, and that means to meet gendered expectations along academic and behavioral lines. I’ve seen this most strongly with one of my own daughters, who is in her early teens. Physically, she fits gender norms. But her behaviors and plans for herself fall outside of what most girls in our smallish, west Texas town may see in the future for themselves. She’s been teased cruelly by so-called friends for her love of math and science.

When several girls were talking about what they wanted to be when they grew up, my daughter said she was interested in computer science, engineering, and film making. These are not typical careers that 13 your old girls mention, and her friends began to tell her that she would be a “weird, lonely, cat lady” if she followed these plans. As much as my husband and I and her teachers support my daughter in her aspirations, these words still cut her deeply.

So what can we do to help the kids in our lives when they face this kind of cruelty? Here are a few ideas from my own experiences, both as a mother and a school psychologist. I’d love to hear other ideas as well, so please share them with us.

  • Acknowledge the pain: It hurts to have someone dismiss or make fun of your dreams, especially if it’s someone you care about. Allow the child in your life to express their feelings honestly.
  • Explore the other person’s perspective: I don’t mean to condone their perspective, but to help the child in your life begin to understand where the other is coming from. One of the most important aspects of critical thinking is being able to understand multiple perspectives, so when the child is ready, give them the chance to try it with this example. In our case, my daughter and I talked about the experiences and exposure that these girls have (or don’t have) to women in the fields of her interest. As a professor’s child, my daughter knows lots of female academics and scientists, and has strong relationships with university students in these fields. Helping her understand that her peers may not have that same exposure gave her a glimpse into their perspective.
  • Provide support: Aside from the support of her parents and teachers, I’ve worked really hard to help my daughter build relationships with a network of women in the fields that she loves. Many can be counted on to act as sounding boards for this type of experience. Several of my daughter’s favorite female university students were able to offer words of support and shared their own experiences with this type of bullying with her. Once she heard from them, she was able to see that she wasn’t alone in her dreams, and that she doesn’t have to let other people’s misunderstandings limit her.
  • Plan for next time: One of the most important things that I’ve done with children who’ve been bullied in any way is to make a plan for how they will handle any future acts of bullying. In my daughter’s case, we planned what she could say if this is brought up again, and even practiced it. Guess what? One of the girls involved recently began to bully my daughter about this again. While it still hurt, my daughter was able to respond decisively, and cut the interaction off with her own well-planned response.
  • Educate others: If you have the opportunity or ability, work with adults in the community to try to educate the students at large. Last year I worked with a group of female STEM professors to provide a week-end workshop for middle school girls about women and careers in STEM fields. While we weren’t able to touch every child in our district, we made good head way in providing a lot of girls with the chance to meet some female scientists and mathematicians in person and expand their own idea about what women and girls can do and become. Don’t be afraid to talk with teachers, counselors, or other adult leaders in your community about ways to help educate children about gender stereotypes.

The main thing that I’ve learned through this experience is that gender norms and expectations are alive and well, especially for early adolescents! As the adults in their lives encourage kids to think outside of the confining pink and blue boxes, they will be able to envision a bigger future for themselves, and hopefully allow others their dreams as well.

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2 comments on “Fear and Loathing in Middle School: Stepping outside of gender norms

  1. naomi@thekidscoach.org.uk
    September 30, 2012

    I get excited about this topic as I am involved in a project that challenges tech companies to rethink what they are offering women in the workplace and also what they are offering us in terms of technolgoy itself. We don’t want pink we want to be understood and also valued for what is inside.

  2. Pingback: Help! My daughter wants to work in nuclear engineering! | Life as Improvisation

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