Challenging the gender status quo is often no easy task for parents

Parents need helpful responses when others minimize or undermine their goal of fighting unhealthy media messages.

In her book Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween, author Melissa Atkins Wardy examines how difficult it can be when parents use their voices to challenge gender stereotypes and sexualized media messages. This can be particularly difficult when we make choices as parents that may be at odds with the thoughts, beliefs and attitudes of our extended family and friends. Whether these choices involve the language we use with girls and boys, the kinds of toys we bring into our homes, the clothing that children wear (even including clothing like Halloween costumes,), or the entertainment media we consume, Wardy points out that our decisions may cause others in our circles to feel uncomfortable and unsettled about their own choices.

Wardy offers several strategies that parents can use when having conversations with others about the ways they’ve chosen to fight against the steady media diet of gender stereotyping and sexualizing:

  • Keep in mind that most everyone wants the children in their circles to have healthy and happy childhoods – including those who might be challenging your choices. Reminding yourself of this will help you recognize their concerns and help you stand firm within your choices related to providing a healthy and safe childhood for your own children.
  • Have a prepared response that you (and your parenting partner) can use that speaks to your clarity and commitment to the issues. Saying something like, “We want our child to be happy and healthy and we feel that this is the best path to achieve that,” makes it clear that you take the issues seriously and want your choices respected.
  • Have a prepared response for situations where others don’t back you up or when they undermine your efforts. These could include phrases such as “Thanks for your advice” or “Our family has chosen this approach” or “I really appreciate your input and I would really appreciate you respecting my parenting decisions.” Using such phrases can help you can maintain a positive relationship with the other person without blaming or shaming, while remaining confident and centered within the goals you’ve established for your family.
  • If others bring DVDs, computer games, toys or other kinds of media into your home that you feel are unhealthy, be prepared by having fun alternatives available. This will allow you to be in the position of saying yes to healthy choices, rather than just saying no to others.
  • Practice ahead of time a conversation starter and closer you can use during these conversations, so that you’re ready to speak up when you need to and wrap things up when a discussion has run its course. Wardy suggests opening with a statement like, “I need to mention something to you about...“ and wrapping up using words like “I really appreciate you listening to what I had to say.” These kinds of phrases help you clearly advocate for your choices, while providing respect for the other person’s point of view. The wrap-up also helps you to end the conversation in a mutually respectful manner.
  • Wardy also suggests having a variety of “back pocket” statements you can use when you hear others say things that perpetuate gender bias and stereotypes. Statements like “Colors are for everyone” or “There are many ways to be a girl/boy” or “Toys are made for kids, not gender” can help you be prepared to powerfully and clearly speak your truth.

Remember that parents don’t have to take on every challenge that comes your way – sometimes it may be more important to let it go, walk away, debrief with your kids if they were present, and then perhaps confront the situation another time. Know that when you do speak up about the positive and healthy experiences you want for your family – even when it involves hard conversations with family and friends – you provide a powerful example for the young people in your lives.

Michigan State University Extension provides opportunities for adults to learn more about these issues – including ways that cultural and media messages are linked to issues of bullying, bias and harassment, as well strategies that young people and adults can use to interrupt hurtful messages and behaviors. For more information, check out a new initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments.

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