Sexist language that belittles or objectifies women is everywhere right now—you can’t turn on a TV or even sit at a coffee shop without hearing people discussing it. And although it’s a very adult topic, your kids are listening, watching how you respond, and taking it all in. They’re also having their own conversations about it with their peers. As with any sensitive topic, parents can and should tackle the subject with their kids directly. But how can you do this in an age-appropriate and helpful way?
These types of offensive speech and behavior (often subtle and sometimes even unintentional) starts all too early. If you’ve ever told your girl, “Oh, honey, he’s only teasing you because he likes you,” or if you heard a similar sentiment in your own youth, you’ve experienced how our culture often gives boys, from the youngest ages, a free pass when it comes to bad behavior toward girls. And in terms of hard numbers, a 2015 survey found that more than 1 in 10 American girls experience catcalls or general street harassment before the age of 11. So while you may consider this subject far removed from your girl’s life, it is a lot closer than you think.
When girls witness these attitudes and behavior being written off as normal, there are serious and lasting consequences. Without even realizing it, they start focusing more time on how they look than exploring how they think or what they can do. The clothing they gravitate toward, even when very young, may emphasize sexuality more than comfort or individual expression. Girls may mistreat their bodies in order to attain the physique deemed most desirable by our culture. Most devastating of all, aggressive and belittling language creates an environment in which girls are less likely to speak up and share their ideas, less likely to think they're qualified for powerful jobs, and less likely to report instances of sexual harassment or violence. (Seventy-one percent of workplace sexual harassment goes unreported, as do 74 percent of sexual assaults.) Often girls and women worry they are in part to blame or don’t want to look like they’re “attention-seeking” or “making a big deal over nothing.”
And it’s not just girls who suffer from this kind of language—boys do, too. When they hear speech that objectifies, belittles, or normalizes violence against women and girls, they’re at risk of growing up with a warped sense of masculinity—one devoid of empathy, compassion, or respect for half of society. And that’s a gender stereotype that isn’t good or healthy for anyone. Indeed, when boys are taught they have to be “tough,” and when sexist language is seen as acceptable both behind closed doors and on the street, for instance, in the form of catcalling, boys can feel pressure to emulate a distorted model of manhood. That means they can also have trouble learning how to cope with the very real emotional challenges life throws their way and are less likely to be able to process their feelings in a healthy way for fear of being seen as “weak.” And children (both boys and girls) who have been raised without the capability to acknowledge uncomfortable feelings or to cope with life’s many hurdles can turn to destruction, violence, and violation as ways to work out their frustration, hurt, and anger.
This kind of damaging talk not only teaches boys that it’s acceptable to treat girls and women with less respect than their male peers, but it also raises girls to believe that their bodies are literally up for grabs—that their appearance is the most valuable asset they have—and that their voices don't matter. Beyond that, it also confuses boys and gives a bad name to men, most of whom do have a great deal of respect for girls and women.
Having these conversations with your children is essential because we can and must do better—for our girls, for our boys, for all of us. Here are a few ways you can tackle the topic and give your kids the skills to stand up against sexist, objectifying language and behavior.
Having these conversations with our children and calling out behavior that objectifies women can sometimes be uncomfortable—for men and women. Facing that bit of discomfort is worth it because we all have a responsibility to raise boys and girls who treat every person with equal respect and dignity.