Raise Children to Defy Stereotypes

The other day, a new (new to me) magazine appeared in our mail: American Educator. (This must be one of the undisclosed perks of highly paid Adjunct Professors. Ha!) Inside was a fascinating article* about implicit bias, which is worth a million posts; I’ll start with one for now. This sentence blew me away:

Examples of counter-stereotypical exemplars may include male nurses, female scientists, African American judges, and others who defy stereotypes.

What? Is it really ‘defying stereotypes’ to be a female scientist? I know lots of female scientists! Perhaps that is only because I am a lady scientist? Or maybe it is because I have a lady rocket scientist and a lady airplane mechanic in my family? But seriously, do we still think that female scientists are defying stereotypes? And isn’t that a problem?

Maybe male nurses and African American judges and female scientists were atypical back when I was in high school, but that was over TWENTY years ago!!! Shouldn’t we have progressed a bit more by now? Or maybe the question is: why are these things still considered unusual? Why haven’t we figured out how to move beyond those old-school stereotypes? And more importantly, how can we raise our children so that they won’t be stuck inheriting our outdated ‘stereotypes’?

The latter is one of my most fervent desires, both as a parent – for my own child, and as a citizen of the world – for all of us. But this isn’t easy work. The reason that we have stereotypes is because we were programmed with them from birth. We are bombarded with them constantly (especially if you own and watch a TV or pretty much any mainstream sporting events). The people we choose to spend time with also contribute to establishing/perpetuating our implicit biases. The input is ongoing.

So how do we counter negative stereotypes and implicit biases? First, we have to explore, identify and acknowledge our own implicit biases. In the same article, Cheryl Staats* provides some advice for how to use Implicit Association Tests, many of which are publicly available at http://implicit.harvard.edu, to identify our own implicit biases. That part is relatively easy. (And totally fascinating! Often our explicit beliefs actually contrast with our implicit biases. Despite our good intentions and professed beliefs, our implicit biases can and do override our explicit convictions during the snap-decision making process.)

Next comes the hard part: if we want to change our implicit biases, then we have to embark on a journey of reprogramming. The good news is: “thanks to the malleable nature of our brains,” reprogramming is possible according to Staats*. It doesn’t take much review of recent events to realize that Americans desperately need to do some serious reprogramming of our racial and gender biases (not to mention all the rest, including but not limited to biases based on sexual orientation, age, disabilities, etc.).

So how do we reprogram and overcome our own implicit bias and avoid programing our children with this nonsense? Amy Joyce makes  several great recommendations in her recent article in the Washington Post. While that article is geared toward gender bias, many of the same tips can be easily applied to any of our many biases. (Thanks to the folks over at A Mighty Girl for sharing Amy’s piece!) I highly recommend Amy’s article; it is well worth a read.

Many of these techniques are relatively simple although they do require self reflection and self examination: Look at your life, the roles you take, and the people you surround yourself with. Are all the people in your life the same race? The same nationality? Do they all speak the same language? Are they all the same age? Are they all the same religion? The same political persuasion? Is work in your home always divided into old-school, gender-based roles? Do you buy and encourage exclusively “girl” toys and “girl” colors for girls? How about the people in the books you read? Your children’s books? Their toys? Their schoolmates and TV input?

Now the fun part: figure out how to defy those stereotypes! How can you introduce positive and stereotype-defying examples into your life and the lives of your children? Have fun with it! Break the mold! Throw off the chains! And if you are completely at a loss, see Amy Joyce’s recent article for several great suggestions.

And now, I’m feeling some serious human power, just waiting, ready to destroy stereotypes. We are always more powerful together. Here is a poem from a book of poems by Audre Lorde (just picked it up today, delivered to my “holds”!). It seems appropriate for this post.


Instead of teaching our children how to defy stereotypes, maybe we should teach them that there are NO stereotypes. We could tell them instead that stereotypes were an antiquated method of keeping everyone within their predetermined and incorrectly defined lines, lines that were defined by the old-school hierarchal, patriarchal machine; and that sometime in the 21st century, humanity woke up and realized that these stereotypes were a ridiculous and useless abstraction, so we abandoned them completely. Wouldn’t that be lovely?

If we truly want to our children to defy stereotypes, we’re going to have to refrain from indoctrinating our children with our old dysfunctional ones. Let’s do this. I am ready. Are you?



Staats, Cheryl. (2015, December). Understanding Implicit Bias: What Educators Should Know. American Educator. 39 (4); p. 29-33.

About Stephanie

I am a mother and a wife, lady scientist, gardener, fabulous cook, foodie, world traveler, and aspiring polymath. I like to ignore stereotypes, challenge the status quo and encourage independent thought.
This entry was posted in Family, Parenting, Schooling, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

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