By Age 6, Your Daughter Already Thinks Boys Are Smarter


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We all want our daughters to grow up believing they're capable of doing anything and everything, whether their interests lie in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), the arts, medicine, sports ... well, you get the idea -- anything and everything that boys can do (and maybe even some things they can't!). But a new study shows that by the tender age of 6, girls already believe that boys are more likely to be "really, really smart" -- even though at the age of 5, girls still associate brilliance with their own gender. 

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Published in the journal Science, the study used a variety of tests on 400 children of both sexes to determine their attitudes about gender. In one experiment, researchers told the kids a story about someone who was "really, really smart," being sure not to give away any hints about that person's gender.

After the story, the kids were asked to look at pictures of four adults (two men and two women) and choose the person they thought the story was about. At 5, both boys and girls picked out characters of their own gender. But among the 6-year-olds, the results were drastically different -- both boys and girls identified the male characters as smart.

Even more upsetting (if that's possible): When asked to engage in activities designed for "really, really smart kids," at the ages of 6 and 7, the girls declined (whereas at 5, they were still interested). So not only are girls this young harboring self-defeating beliefs, but these beliefs are also already affecting their behavior. (It's okay, you can go ahead and bang your head against the wall in frustration right about now.)

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As discouraging as these findings are, they're of course not entirely surprising; gender equality -- or the lack thereof -- is clearly an issue that runs shockingly deep in our society. But since 5-year-old girls still seem self-confident, it's also clear that girls don't start out underestimating themselves. Why does this heartbreaking shift occur by age 6, and what can we do as parents to stop it?

"In a study like this, what you see is that kids do seem to have strong beliefs that are very, very related to gender," NYC-based licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Jephtha Tausig-Edwards (otherwise known as Dr. Jeph) tells CafeMom.

"What you don't see are the causes," she adds.

Still, theories abound as to why girls are making this flip at age 6, and the first possible reason probably won't surprise you.

"Certainly a big potential factor might be just the media," says Dr. Jeph, who works extensively with children and teens and is the supervising psychologist for Family & Children's Services of Nantucket.

"It's very often in subtle ways, but even now people are shown in different roles because of their gender or behaving in certain ways because of their gender ... traditionally smart girls in cartoons and comics and movies are portrayed as brainiacs who wear thick spectacles; they're not supposed to be glamorous or desirable or cute," she says. "Who wants to be that person? Even if it's not overt, it's insidious."

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"Pretty" girls and characters, meanwhile, are stereotypically stymied by such "male" pursuits as fractions and equations.

"Just a couple of years ago there was that Barbie doll that said ['math class is tough']," Dr. Jeph points out. "To their credit, they recalled it ... but still."

Indeed. That said, we can't place all the blame on the media and retailers and society at large -- our daughters' lack of faith in their abilities might also be our fault. Whether or not we realize it, many of us speak differently to our daughters than we do (or would) to our sons.

"How do we encourage our daughters to go out there and compete?" asks Dr. Jeph. "Do we say, 'You're just as good as everybody else,' or do we say, 'It's okay if you fail, this might be really hard'?" 

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These subtle differences are what make girls feel like they're not meant to succeed (and boys feel like it's their destiny). Another factor that influences what girls grow up to believe about their gender is what -- or, more specifically, who -- they're exposed to.

"I think it has to do with what's considered normative," says Dr. Jeph. "It's all about what's considered baseline normal for that girl, or even that boy, in the family or neighborhood or society that child is growing up in."

In other words, if mom is a math teacher or grandma works on trucks or her big sister is a science wiz, it's a safe bet that a little girl will grow up believing she can do the same things, because that's "normal" for her. But it's okay if you don't have women who fit that bill in your family, Dr. Jeph says.

"Provide your kids with as many different experiences of other families, other neighborhoods, other experiences as possible," she recommends. "Show them that not everybody lives the way we do at home." 

And if your daughter says something that sounds like it should be on an ill-conceived Barbie's T-shirt (like "girls just aren't good at math"), don't panic. 

"Don't come down hard or shame them in any way, but maybe show some curiosity," says Dr. Jeph. "Like, 'Really, girls aren't good at math? How do you know that? I don't think I agree with you; what do you mean?'"

Gently question where the idea came from and why she's saying it, Dr. Jeph says, in a way that will encourage her to fill you in. Then, find examples of women who excelled in their fields: "Well, wait a minute, here's a woman who was actually brilliant in that area."

And of course, it should go without saying that all of these tips apply to parents of boys, too. Our daughters need to believe in themselves, yes, but the world needs to believe in them, too -- and we need today's boys to grow up into the kind of men who believe in equality across the board, or that world will never exist.

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