Much time is spent discussing the potentially damaging things adults say to each other, but are we focusing enough on things children hear that are harmful to everyone? The patriarchy is bad for both women and men — that much is made abundantly clear by two simple yet stunning recent videos from Huffington Post, "48 Things Men Hear in a Lifetime (That Are Bad For Everyone)" and "48 Things Women Hear in a Lifetime (That Men Just Don't)." But the videos got me thinking: If these are the harmful messages grown men and women are hearing, what harmful messages might we be sending kids? After all, men and women begin as boys and girls. How early do sexist and otherwise insidious messages make their way to young minds?
Sadly, sooner than we'd probably like to believe. There are certain idioms, expressions, and advice commonly doled out to children that do more harm than good. Whether they are passive aggressive remarks mothers make to their daughters or the subtly sexist things we say to each other in the company of our kids, most of us are guilty of using language that isn't just bad for the little ears hearing it — it's ultimately damaging for society as a whole. The upside is that in identifying and discussing this language, we can start to dispel it. In that vein, let's explore ten things kids hear from adults that should be reformed post haste.
1. "Don't Cry"
As the mother of a 4-year-old girl with emotions literally bursting out of her eyeballs on the regular, I can personally attest to how tough it is not to cave in and say this to your kids sometimes. But it's problematic for several reasons, starting with the fact that children sometimes can't articulate their feelings in other ways yet. Thus, in telling them not to cry or that "crying is for babies," we are essentially rendering their emotions invalid. What's more, we are sending the message that there is something wrong with crying — that it is something adults don't do. Crying is a natural and healthy expression for all of us, big and small, and implying otherwise can be emotionally stunting.
2. "Periods Are Horrible/Gross/Etc"
As adults, you know and I know that menstruation is an entirely normal and important bodily process. However, kids are impressionable and the things they routinely hear about periods — they are gross, they are agonizing — imprint early and lead to a lot of fear and shame (not to mention misconceptions). I distinctly remember getting my period for the first time and being mortified. I didn't want anyone to know, and it took several days of makeshift TP maxi-pads for me to finally fess up to my mom. Girls should be aware of what menstruation is and shouldn't be made to feel embarrassed or ashamed to talk about it.
3. "I'm So Fat"
Words often carry more weight than we realize they do — and words about weight, well, they definitely do. If kid hear an adult, and especially a parent, criticizing his or her body, they will pick up that behavior too. As alarmist as it may sound, a child hearing body negativity or criticism can lead to a lifetime of body acceptance issues and eating disorders. In a world where body-shaming by others is so prevalent, it's important for kids to know and embrace early that self worth is not tied to any particular size.
4. "You're Only Young Once"
Sure, this is technically accurate. However, it suggests there is a finite time in your life for actually living it — that you better pack all the fun stuff into your childhood, because it's all downhill to death's door once you cross a certain threshold. The truth of the matter is that A) people are living longer now, and B) people feel younger longer. We are capable of doing more in our advancing age than at any other point in history, so what's the rush? Life is an awfully big adventure, and children shouldn't be indoctrinated with the belief that the window for experiencing that adventure is limited by age.
5. "It's Impolite To Talk About ________"
Sometimes the things that need to be discussed the most are not "polite." And, really, isn't "polite" a totally subjective term anyway? What one person finds improper another person may find perfectly acceptable. What we are really saying when we tell children it's impolite to talk about something is that it makes us uncomfortable, which should never be used as an excuse for censoring. By telling a child certain topics are off the table, we are breeding an environment of suppression and potentially stigmatizing important conversations that should be had — think sex, religion, politics, periods (see above) and the likes.
6. "You're Really Good — For A Girl"
Girls hear this All.The.Time. It's alarming, really. In addition to being overtly condescending, it's also the worst because it's packaged as a compliment. In one fell swoop, it concedes that a girl is talented at something while simultaneously maintaining that her talent is relative to the sexist standards held by the patriarchy. Here's the thing: girls don't need sexist qualifiers to validate their accomplishments. Hearing such qualifiers implies to both boys and girls that women are limited because of their gender.
7. "Be a Man" or "Man Up"
Common expressions, "be a man" and "man up" are defined in Urban Dictionary as to "be a man and do the right thing." We can see how this is troubling, no? Doing the right thing is obviously gender neutral — yet, as evidenced by this expression, the language of power is often masculine. Given that there are no similar exhortations revolving around women, one is left to assume that the solution to any problem is simply to be more masculine. This perpetuates gender inequality and inhibits children (and boys, in particular) from learning to express their emotions.
8. "You Should Smile More"
This goes hand-in-hand with "You're so much prettier/cuter when you smile" — you may think it's constructive, but it's criticism nonetheless. Besides, who among us roams the Earth with a smile plastered to our face 24/7? More often than not, these words are lobbed at females to encourage them to live up to their femininity. But telling a woman to smile is little more than a power move. Little girls who hear it will assume they must mask their real feeling for the sake of pleasing others, and little boys who hear it said to little girls will assume it's an OK thing to say.
9. "Boys Will Be Boys"
Can we all agree that gendered language in general is harmful to everyone? It encourages gender stereotypes, biases, and sexist behavior. And, in this case, it serves as a blanket excuse for often bad behavior. Trust me, I've heard this used in reference to my own 3-year-old son as an effective means to end conversation surrounding his behavior — i.e. I want to know why he is allowed to rough-house at preschool and am met with this one-note response. It ignores any other influencing factors outside of gender and neatly squeezes any indiscretions under the umbrella of biological impulse. This expression also creates a rigid definition of what constitutes boy-like behavior, while children should be allowed to explore the full range of their personalities independent of societal constructs.
10. "You'll Understand When You Have Kids"
The issues here are multi-pronged. For starters, it would have children believe that becoming a parent is inevitable. In reality, though, not everyone grows up with procreation as a goal. So what's the alternative for kids who decide they don't want to be mommies and daddies one day — that they'll never understand? Second, it discourages discourse. It gives adults an out of the "you're too young to comprehend" variety when, truth be told, children are capable of comprehending much more than we give them credit for. Honesty is the best policy, right?