Parents, Volunteers

How to raise limitless girls (and boys)!

Our brains begin to make connections and place things in categories at a very early age. These categories are stereotypes (or “cognitive shortcuts“) that allow us to make quick decisions based on the information we have. And that’s not always a bad thing! Finding commonalities and building categories helps us make sense of the world around us.

So what’s the problem?It’s when we don’t look beyond the first impression, beyond the easy label, to the individual in front of us. When we assign restrictive labels to people we’ve met (or haven’t met!) and enforce stereotypes of what people who fit that label can and can’t do. We’re putting people into neat little imaginary boxes — and nobody likes being boxed in!

Here at Girl Scouts, we want to help free our girls (and boys, too!) from the limits of stereotypes and gender bias. It’s time to encourage our youth (and ourselves!) to be limitless!

So how do we raise limitless children? It starts with me, and it starts with you!

1. Recognize Our Biases

What is bias? Bias is the belief that a stereotype is true. A bias can be very specific (you’re distrustful when you meet anyone named Jon because the child who taunted you in middle school was named Jon), or it can be very general (you think boys are better at math and girls are better at communication).

Everybody has biases, but our biases aren’t truth. Think about it: not every Jon you meet will make fun of you. Plenty of girls are good at math. Plenty of boys are excellent communicators. People don’t all fit into the categories that we assign them. So we need to try to recognize our own bias, the things we’ve learned as “true,” so that we don’t project them onto others. Because according to the research below, what we project matters.

In the AAUW research report Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, my colleagues compiled and analyzed several studies showing that any time students were primed with the directions that men were better than women at a certain skill, the men outperformed the women on the subsequent test of that skill. But when test takers were told that men and women performed equally well in that same skill, the test results evened out. In some cases, the women outperformed the men. – Why Stereotypes Are Bad and What You Can Do about Them

So now that you know you have biases (and maybe have tried to figure out what some of yours are), what can we do to stop projecting stereotypes and harmful biases onto the next generation?

2. Embrace a New Normal

The times, they are a-changing, and so should our ideas of what is considered “normal” behavior for human beings. We don’t need to put restrictive labels on stuff, like these pink blocks are girl toys and these dinosaurs are boy toys. And we can stop putting negative labels on people, like saying country music is for rednecks and rap music is for thugs.

Those examples, and many more hurtful and harmful labels, are stereotypes. And isn’t it time we let people be people instead of stereotypes?

Girls and boys (and adults!), choose the toy or the music that interests you. Pursue the roles (careers, friends, hobbies) that interest you, not the ones society has decided you fit into. Because stereotypes go out of date.

Think about it: if you asked a child 50 years ago “what girls do” and “what boys do” you would get a very different answer than you do today, wouldn’t you? The old definition of “normal” isn’t so normal anymore. So let’s stop using it to judge others!

3. Follow Your Child’s Lead

At Girl Scouts we call this girl-led, and we’ve been doing it for decades.

What does it mean? Simple: give girls (and boys, too!) the opportunity to explore many different activities, roles, and interests. Let her make choices about what she plays with, what sports or extracurricular activities she does, and how she spends her free time.

Maybe today she’s all about tea parties and princess dresses. Then tomorrow she wants to hit the library and check out every book they have on alligators. And the day after that she’s pulling on rain boots to go down to the creek and catch crawdads. And then those teenage years hit. One week life is soccer drills and band practice, the next it’s space camp and first dates, all while wearing black nail polish and listening to emo music.

That’s awesome! Through it all she’s figuring out what she loves and who she is. Try it all, girl!

So let her choose toys, books, and activities that interest her and excite her imagination. Let her shape her experiences by asking questions, offering ideas, and challenging the status quo. And what do you get to do? You are her awesome guide as she explores! You help her find diverse experiences, meet people who don’t fit the stereotype, and encourage her to follow her dreams.

What else can you do to help her be limitless, to bust the labels and defy stereotypes? Check out this post from Girl Scouts of the USA with 6 Easy Ways to Bust Gender Stereotypes!

4. Find the Trailblazers and Share Their Stories

And finally, to raise limitless children who defy stereotypes and follow their dreams, we need to introduce them to the trailblazers. The men and women who stood up, stood out, and refused to be boxed in by the labels and stereotypes of others. They were Go-getters, Innovators, Risk-takers, and Leaders. And the next generation needs to hear their stories!

How do you find these people? Sometimes they are your neighbors, friends, and coworkers: the female police officer serving your community, the stay-at-home dad down the block, or the son of immigrants who works in the cubicle beside you and is the first person in his family to receive a college degree.

Sometimes the story your child (and you!) need to hear might be that of a famous person or a historical figure. If your daughter loves math and science and dreams of being an astronaut, then Katherine Johnson and Sally Ride have stories she needs to know. Does she see issues big and small in her community that she wants to help change? Then tell her of women like Susan B. Anthony and Ida B. Wells who fought for their rights and whose efforts made it possible for you (and your daughter!) to make their voices heard and their votes count.

There are so many amazing stories of people who didn’t fit the mold (or who broke the mold). These are trailblazers and their stories can inspire your child (and you)!


So what do you think? Are you ready to help bust the stereotype and remove the limits for the next generation? We are-and we hope you join us in our limitless world!

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