Children’s books can solidify gender stereotypes early on

The pen is mightier than the sword, and we have clearly seen in recent times how easy it is for words to deceive and put us on the wrong path. Children are perhaps even more sensitive than adults to the impact of words. For example, words can instill in children early on that some things are specific to boys, while others are specific to girls.

In a recent study, researchers analyzed 247 books written for children ages 5 and under from the Wisconsin Children’s Book Corpus to see if they could find significant gender differences between these books. They did it.

“The audience of these books [are] different, ”said Molly Lewis, a specialist professor in the departments of social and decision-making sciences and psychology at the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and lead author of the study. “Girls read stereotypical girls ‘books more often and boys read stereotypical boys’ books more often. “

“Some of the stereotypes that have been studied in the social psychology literature are present in these books, such as girls being good at reading and boys being good at math,” the researcher added.

Books with female protagonists had a more gendered language than books with male protagonists. The researchers attribute this result to the fact that “man” is historically considered the gender by default. The words and phrases coded by women are more outside the norm and more noticeable. Oddly enough, children’s books also contained more gendered vocabulary than adult fiction books.

The study only analyzed a small set of children’s books, but it is plausible that these gender differences are widely present. However, knowing that these differences exist is one thing – understanding their impact is another, the researchers point out. It is not clear how children perceive these differences, but being aware that they exist is a first step in the right direction.

“Our data is only part of the story, so to speak,” said Mark Seidenberg, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and contributing author of the study. “They are based on the words in children’s books and say nothing about other important characteristics: the story, the emotions they evoke, the way the books expand knowledge of the children’s world. We don’t want to spoil the memories of “Curious George” or “Amelia Bedelia”. Knowing that stereotypes creep into many books and that children develop gender beliefs at a young age, we probably want to view books with that in mind.

“There is often a kind of learning cycle of gender stereotypes, with children learning stereotypes at a young age and then perpetuating them as they get older,” Lewis said. “These books can be a way to communicate information about gender. We may need to be careful what these messages might be and whether they are messages that you even want to pass on to children, ”the researchers conclude.

Journal Reference: What Books Could Teach Young Children About Gender? Psychological sciences (2021).

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