Girls, boys and the language we use

Girls, boys and the language we use

We live in interesting times.  Now, more than ever, it’s reasonable to question our behaviour and language, especially around bias towards others.

Gender, race, ethnicity, age and education are common areas where assumptions are often made about people and their abilities. Many of us learnt about gender bias in childhood and what is expected of different genders. Without some insight into our own language,  most of us tend to continue with old patterns.

How we talk to our children about gender differences is a powerful influence.  However, it’s important and possible to change biases, even when they’ve been ingrained for years.  

International Women’s Day (IWD) on Tuesday 8 March 2022,  is a good opportunity to think about the language we use which supports gender-based disrespect.  And to celebrate the progress we’ve made in supporting the rights of women and girls.[1]

What can I do to not be biased when talking to my kids?

The first step is to become more aware of the words you use when talking about different genders. We all carry our own beliefs and biases around what females and males can do.

But change can be small and often starts with a greater awareness of questioning what we hear from others and what we say ourselves.

  • Think of people as individuals, not as being defined by gender. Use words such as “they” or “they’re” rather than “his” or “hers”.
  • Switch to using gender neutral labels like “firefighter”, “chairperson”, “homemaker” or “police officer” rather than the traditional endings with “man”.
  • Avoid using language which groups people according to their gender, e.g., “all boys/girls”. Instead, use more accurate descriptors like “some people”. 
  • Role model strong and inclusive behaviour and language yourself. Your children will learn from you what’s acceptable in your home. Even if they’re very young, start as you mean to go on.
  • Don’t restrict your child’s exposure to cultural differences. Ideally, what you eat, the shows you watch, the people you mix with and family activities all include diversity.
  • Encourage your children to form cross-gender friendships and socialise with mixed gender groups. Refer to their friendships in a positive and inclusive way and treat their friends as you would like your own child to be treated.   
  • Encourage your child to do activities which they’re interested in, not what tradition prescribes. Football, ballet, dance, sports and drama are all equally accessible and provide incredible opportunities for children to learn and interact.

10 family rules for inclusiveness

  1. Show respect for everyone, regardless of their gender.
  2. Using phrases such as “In our family we…” gives a strong message of cohesion and support for each other.
  3. Let your children see you stand up for others if you feel there is gender bias happening.
  4. If you have children of only one gender, be particularly careful about how you talk about the opposite one. Don’t be dismissive of the gender your child is not, in the same way you’d expect their parents to be accepting of your children. Respect goes both ways.    
  5. Appreciate that your child has a right, as do all of us, to make up their own mind about what interests them, independent of stereotypes. Your influence is not absolute.   
  6. Encourage your children to take leadership opportunities which are important to them. Strength and confidence are built over time and practice.
  7. Teach your children that it’s okay to feel scared, unsure and question themselves and this is normal and healthy, not dependent on their gender.
  8. Challenge demeaning stereotypes about girls and boys when you hear them. Teach your child that bullying can take many forms and it’s important to stand up for others. 
  9. Welcome strong role models into your child’s life. Teachers, coaches, older mentors can all provide a positive influence on children,  independent of gender.
  10. Choose your partner wisely so your children learn about respectful communication. Your children will learn about relationships and language by watching and hearing the ways you relate to each other.

Language to role model for boys and girls

Be kind – it doesn’t matter what gender you’re addressing.  Making derogatory comments such as “stupid woman” or “having a man look”, or telling boys, “don’t cry like a girl” or to “man up”  are baseless and derogatory.

Be mindful that some people believe that women can either be a good mother, or a competent working professional – not both.  And that it’s fair to share professional success with other women and not feel judged or less of a caring parent. 

Use terms like “balance”, “making choices” and “prioritizing” with your kids, rather than “either” or “can’t” or “shouldn’t”.  The old saying “You can’t be what you can’t see” holds true for most children.

Use terms such as fairness, equity, sharing and balanced. Hearing these words will help you and your children get used to looking for gaps where there is unequal representation of gender.

Use evidence to back up your conversations with your kids and let them know that gender equality is a human right.  There are also specific gender equality laws in Australia and many countries, to fight against discrimination based on gender.    

A final word

The tendency by many parents to raise their girls as little princesses may have come at a cost, specifically, being ‘looked after’ rather than becoming capable and independent. Likewise, for boys to be protectors and be attracted to women who can’t rely on themselves financially and to make decisions. 

It is our job as parents, to raise children who are not defined by their gender but instead, use their inherent skills to become evolved, strong and kind people.  

Written for GAIA by Jane Barry, Midwife and Child Health Nurse, February 2022.

[1] International Women’s Day | Get Involved | UN Women Australia