Alyssa Schell and Xandre Couchot
How to Raise a Feminist Part 1: “Nature via Nurture” and Cognitive Development
When babies are born, most people often think of them as a blank slate. To an extent, this is true. We are born into chaos we do not understand. We have never seen light or shapes, we have never heard voices that weren’t muffled by our mothers’ body, and we haven’t felt the cool air on our skin. However, our brains are predisposed to organize some of that chaos. When babies are born, they babble. This babbling is made up of every sound found in every human language. Eventually, the baby drops most of the sounds and starts using the ones present in the language the baby’s caregiver(s) speak (Films Media Group, 2014). This means babies are biologically predisposed to language learning. We also learn about the world through our interactions with the people around us and our culture. Every culture is unique and has different values, traditions, and social norms. Children raised in different cultural contexts will have different narratives and ways of thinking due to how they were raised. There are many ways that our brains grow and develop over time. A few years ago, psychologists and philosophers would ask if we developed through nature or nurture. But the evidence has shown that we grow through nature via nurture. Both are important for developing our brains. Our minds develop through the growth of our central nervous system, the development of our perception, and the narratives we are given by our environment.
American society is steeped with sexism — that is, “prejudice or discrimination based on sex, especially […] against women” (Merriam-Webster, 2019). It’s a society that consistently paints women as subservient to men and devalues them for acting outside of that narrow cultural schema. As a result, being a woman in American society is fraught with tribulations, both explicit and implicit. For example, women disproportionately experience sexual and physical violence and harassment. One in five women experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetime, compared to one in 71 men (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2010). Moreover, 1 in 10 women have experienced stalking by an intimate partner (in comparison to 1 in 50 men), and 1 in 2 female murder victims are killed by intimate partners as opposed to 1 in 13 men (NCADV, 2010). Economically, it’s not much better. Women make less money — roughly 80 cents to a man’s dollar — despite earning more college degrees than men (National Partnership for Women & Families, 2020; National Center for Education Statistics, 2015) and are promoted less often despite asking for raises just as much as anyone else (McKinsey & Company & LeanIn.org, 2019; Artz et al., 2018). This is further disparaged by the fact that products marketed as “for women” cost an average of 7% more than equivalent “men’s” products, even when they’re essentially the same (Bessendorf, 2015) — the list goes on. The problem now is, if sexism is ingrained in our cultural ideologies, so pervasive that these issues continue despite our best efforts, then how do we fix it? The answer lies, in part, in raising the next generation to be feminists (people who believe in the “political, economic, and social equality of the sexes”; Merriam-Webster, 2018) by changing the narratives around women, utilizing the nature via nurture paradigms of cognitive development.
The way our brain develops starts before we are even born. Very early on in the uterus, the embryo has already started to create the structure of the central nervous system in a process called neurulation (Keil, 2014, pp. 45-46). During this process, the neurons are undergoing neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons. The developing neurons divide in cell proliferation, causing them to grow in number exponentially. As they grow, they cause cell migration, which is when neurons grow in length to attach to other neurons or a receptor cell (Keil, 2014, p. 60). After the neurons reach their destination, they start forming connections between other neurons. These connections are called synapses and form in a process called synaptogenesis, which allows the neurons to communicate to each other (Keil, 2014, p. 61). When the synapses are all formed, the brain undergoes a process called synaptic pruning. During this process, neurons and synaptic connections die in a controlled pattern, which helps establish different brain circuits and patterns (Keil, 2014, p. 61). This is why children have better brain plasticity than adults. The neural circuits are not yet established, so if one vital circuit is damaged, the brain can more easily rewire that circuit. Without this process, many of our senses would be mixed. Before this process happens, babies experience a form of synesthesia, meaning they can see a light and have the sensation of hearing it (Films Media Group, 2014). One notable aspect of the human brain that even after it is largely formed, it still retains a lot of malleability. This is due to an ability called experience-dependent plasticity, which means that the brain can physically change as the direct result of a person’s lived experiences (Keil, 2014, p. 64). In other words, as a human learns (particularly in the case of persistent, focused activities), their brain can change to better accommodate whatever skills they’ve acquired. These sorts of biological abilities allow children to take in all the world has to offer — given the right amount of social stimulation.
While the brain develops, so does perception. Even while in the uterus, infants are receiving stimuli, most often in the form of their mother’s voice. When babies are born with working vision, they start receiving stimuli in the form of light. However, they are not born able to make sense of that stimuli. Their eye muscles are not strong enough yet to focus images, their brains have not yet learned to sort color so primary colors and shades are all they are able to see, and the occipital lobe has not developed enough to put together both images from each eye (Films Media Group, 2014). However, even our eyes have a unique ability to sort out what is and is not important. Even though babies have never seen anything before, their eyes follow moving objects. If our sight was truly and completely just images in our brains, the moving object would just be a blob surrounded by many other blobs and its movement would not appear to be movement to the brain (Gopnik, Meltzoff, & Kuhl, 1999, p. 6). Hearing, on the other hand, is further long in development. Infant’s inner ears have finished developing around 32 weeks after conception (Keil, 2014, p. 56). This means they are able to hear roughly 6 weeks before they are born.
Communication starts to develop even before babies are born. They can recognize their mothers voice before they leave her uterus. Babies only a few days old will have different kinds of crying to communicate their needs to their caregiver and, after a few weeks, develop a concept of self and others (Films Media Group, 2014). During this time, they are also working on developing language. Up to 6 months, babies can hear the difference between every sound that makes up every language. They will even babble in these sounds. Eventually, their brains will adjust to only hearing and making the sounds of the language used by their caregivers (Films Media Group, 2014).
Skills such as communication and walking appear to be biologically coded into our DNA. While skills such as walking are more obvious because we can see them, mental skills such as communication are less obvious in the beginning. Babies communicate with their parents through crying, and different cries have different meanings. This suggests some communication is not learned but is actually innate. We are biologically predisposed to communicate. However, language still needs to be learned. We are not born into our language; we acquire it through our parents. Luckily for us, we are born with a great ability to learn it. Our brains are predisposed to learning language, but it needs to be taught for it to work. This highlights the nature via nurture model mentioned earlier.
Some skills are biologically predisposed, but some are not. Talking and language is a biologically primary skill (I.e. language is one of the skills we are born to learn). However, writing, a major part of language and communication in many cultures, is not. We do not have a part of our brain dedicated to writing. This means it is a biologically secondary skill. Biologically primary skills are skills present in all cultures and have clear developmental milestones that are consistent with age. Biologically secondary skills are not necessarily visible in all cultures and develop in their own time (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, September 7, 2020).
Bronfenbrenner’s Bio-ecological Systems Model
So far, everything discussed has fallen under the biological system of Bronfenbrenner’s Bio-ecological systems model, a model of development that accounts for all parts of the environment in which babies develop (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, September 18, 2020). However, biology is not the only thing that contributes to how children grow. At the center of the model is the baby, which resides in the microsystem. Outside of that is the mesosystem, which consists of the baby’s family, school/daycare friends and peers, and other people the baby would see almost every day (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, September 18, 2020). Due to the amount of time spent with them, these are the people who care for the baby and are responsible for the vast majority of the babies learning. They are the models for language, walking, eating, and other basic needs. They also teach the baby how to treat people by example. Because they teach the baby the majority of what they learn, they are most responsible for the baby’s development.
The next layer of Bronfenbrenner’s Bio-ecological systems model is the exosystem. The exosystem is made up of extended family, mass media, neighbors, and other people the baby will see occasionally (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, September 18, 2020). These people are also responsible for some amount of learning for the baby. If the baby is still learning language, they will be good practice. If they are learning to socialize, they may learn that you treat people differently depending on their relationship to you.
The outermost system is the macrosystem. The macrosystem is made up of culture, laws, social class, and other large societal concepts. This system influences the actions of the people in the other systems (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, September 18, 2020). They are less tangible and vaguer than the other systems. The baby likely will not be aware of this system until they are older. However, this system can influence a lot of the influences of the systems below it. Culture and laws may direct the media. Social class may change family structure, dynamics, and responsibilities. All of these layers will guild the baby to grow as a person.
All of these systems form what makes up the baby’s environment. The environment not only influences biological development, but personal development as well. We learn what to believe and why through our experiences and from what we are told. Beliefs in things we have no experience in often rely on what we are told. Many of our beliefs are based on narratives from the media or experiences of others. The problem with these narratives, however, often lead to an incomplete picture of the truth that we mistake as true (Adichie, 2009).
Despite how it may seem at first, narrative can be a powerful social tool in shaping how people, namely children, view the world. We only know what it means to be, say, a certain gender, because we as humans have developed (and are still developing) complex narratives about what it means to be as such. Cognitively, these narratives then get perpetuated by the process of mediation, semiotics, and internalization (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, September 7, 2020). Mediation occurs when a society (the macrosystem) establishes a narrative around what it means to be, say, female, and creates social norms and ideas about that identity. A female baby is born and is socialized within the systems according to these norms; her parents tell her that she’s a girl, dress her in the ways that society says girls “should” dress, and maybe point out things that girls “should” like or do. This is semiotics. As the child hears more of these messages from the people around her, she internalizes them and starts to form part of her identity around being female.
Through this process, “children not only acquire cognitive skills, […] but they also develop selves and identities, affective stances, forms of moral agency, and ways of being” (Miller et al., 2007). The child will carry with her these internalized messages throughout her lifetime, and act on them in various ways; as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, “stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize” (2009). For example, if the child grew up hearing messages that women aren’t as physically capable as men and aren’t any good at sports, then she might internalize those messages and give up on any burgeoning dreams she had of being a star athlete. On the other hand, after hearing those messages, she might reject them and decide to pursue her dreams anyway. Regardless, she will go on to spread her conclusions to those around her (“I’m a girl, so I never played sports” or “I played sports despite the stereotypes”), thus perpetuating a narrative cycle.
This cycle of mediation, semiotics, and internalization plays into a larger aspect of developmental science: the nature versus nurture debate. In this context, nature causes any pattern of thought or behavior that would develop regardless of a child’s lived experiences, while nurture is the impetus behind thoughts and behaviors that result directly from lived experiences (Keil, 2014, p.12). It may seem like the two govern a child’s development separately, but in actuality, they are deeply intertwined processes. To quote Gopnik, Meltzoff, and Kuhl, “just as everything about our minds is caused by our brains, everything about our brains is ultimately caused by our evolutionary history. That means, though, that evolution can select learning strategies and cultural abilities just as it selects reflexes and instincts” (1999). Babies have wonderful biological advantages in the form of experience-dependent plasticity and the internalization cycles described prior, but they only work if the child has nurturing relationships with people who are willing to provide them with the necessary psychological and sensory stimulation. Without that, the child suffers from worsened brain development and other delays (failure to thrive; Keil, 2014, p. 64). Thus, it is more accurate to say that development is a matter of “nature via nurture” (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, September 7, 2020).
Adichie stated, “gender prescribes how we should be, rather than how we are,” (2012) which best describes why we should all be feminists. Many people who grow up in a house with clear gender roles (e.g. dad goes to work while mom stays home and cooks and cleans and takes care of children) have only seen gendered relationships, will think that their parents relationship is how all relationships are. They will only be given that one narrative. If this person is a heterosexual cisgender boy, they may never question this dynamic. He may think that all relationships are this way. Then one day when he meets a girl, he may be confused, or even angry as to why she does not behave the way his mom did with his dad. He might form a kind of resentment for her and other women like her because they are different than how he expected. His narrative of women only being caregivers and cleaners emphasizes how men and women are different, which puts a divide between them. If other narratives were presented to him, the possibility of developing that resentment would be less and he might be more well adjusted for other relationships (Adichie, 2009).
These experiences extend past the mesosystem. Women are treated differently in day-to-day interactions. When a man and a woman are walking together, the man will be treated as a priority by strangers (Adichie, 2012). This is another result of the one narrative. People assume men and women are more different than they are similar. However, the only differences in our development are the formation of our genitalia before we are born, how puberty affects our bodies, and the role in reproduction (Adichie, 2009;Keil, 2014, pp. 52-53,64-65). These differences are very small compared to our similarities. We all develop the same in every other aspect. Gender roles and ideas are cultured and not based on any biological predisposition.
In American society, women are expected to always be subservient and family-oriented, men the strong providers. Considering the vastness of the human experience, this is entirely too limiting, not even considering that the idea that men must always be “strong” punishes them for being emotionally vulnerable and expressive, which isn’t healthy for anyone. If we make feminism the norm — that is, noticing and calling out gendered inequalities, showing others that they don’t have to be traditionally gendered if they don’t want to be, the list goes on — we can change the larger cultural narratives around gender and what it’s “supposed” to be. As Gopnik et al. said, “children [use] adults to discover the particularities of their culture and society” (1999). If we play into the “nature via nurture” ideology and have age-appropriate talks with children about feminism and encourage them to do what they want despite gender stereotypes, we can ingrain in them more equitable values that they’ll spread to those around them. This can flip the script and eventually (hopefully) make it so that gender simply becomes a facet of who we are, rather than prescribing how we should be.
How to Raise a Feminist Part 2: Perception, Language, and the Development of Bias
The development of babies is dependent on the systems in which they grow, per Bronfenbrenner’s bio-ecological systems theory. The smallest system, the biological system, is covered by the development via perception and language. We first develop our perception which shapes our early cognition. From there, cognition is developed further by learning language. Other external forces, such as the micro-, meso-, exo-, and macrosystems, work together to influence a child’s perception of gender, often resulting in sexism. The way perception and language influences cognition is, itself, influenced by the environments in which we are raised. The earliest step in this process starts with the way in which we start to perceive the world and the people in it.
Perception to Cognition
Babies are born with the ability to sense stimuli from their surroundings. A healthy baby will have fully functioning eyes and ears at birth. However, we have learned that even though babies can sense the world around them, they have to learn to perceive it. We know infants have the ability to differentiate light from dark to a certain extent. While they do not have the ability to see subtle differences in light like adults, this means infants can see patterns (Keil, 2014, p. 79). By using an infant’s ability to see patterns we can measure their preferences using a method called the preferential looking method. In this method, researchers will show an infant two patterns. If the infant can see that they are 2 different patterns, then they will look at the pattern they prefer (Keil, 2014, p. 79).
We have learned a lot about the ways babies perceive the world using the preferential looking method. For example, when infants are shown two faces, one normal face and one face with scrambled features, they will choose to look at the normal face. This suggests that babies can recognize faces from very early in life (Keil, 2014, p. 95). They can also tell the difference in some emotions. Infants prefer looking at happy faces over fearful or angry faces (Keil, 2014, p. 96).
However, these faces are not recognizable by sex. Rennels, Juvrud, Kayl, Asperholm, Gredebäck, and Herlitz (2017) found that infants learn to differentiate between male and female faces in a process called perceptual narrowing. In their research, infants raised by a single female caregiver showed more perceptual narrowing in a task that required them to search for their caregivers face. Infants whose caregivers shared responsibility showed less narrowing and also did better at finding male faces. This evidence shows that infants prefer the face of the people they see most, rather than showing a gender preference from birth.
As infants start to comprehend what they see, they also start to learn about the world around them. Infants learn how objects behave in space by seeing what happens to them when something acts on them. Infants do not have an innate understanding of how objects work. For example, they will often make an A-not-B error. To see this, infants are placed in front of two covers. A researcher will take an object out from under cover A and place it under cover B. However, even though the infant saw the object go under cover B, they will still check under cover A first. Jean Piaget explained this by saying the infant has not developed the schema of the object being under cover B (Keil, 2014, p. 153). However, a more modern explanation is that infants can mentally hold the concept of the object and its location in their minds, but do not have the cognitive or motor capabilities to show where it is (Keil, 2014, p. 155). They need to develop these abilities in order to express what is in their minds.
Schulz (2015) developed a more modern study to demonstrate how infants think. She showed babies different statistical information in the form of a box full of blue and yellow balls. In the first group of babies, the box had more blue balls than yellow. A researcher would then pull out 3 blue balls and squeeze them to cause them to squeak. The baby would then be given a yellow ball and try to squeeze it to get it to squeak. This demonstrates how babies think about the properties of the balls. Because the box was mostly full of blue balls and all the blue balls squeaked, the infant thinks maybe all the balls squeak. In the second group, the researcher showed the baby three blue balls from a box full of mostly yellow balls. In this sample, the babies did not squeeze the yellow ball when it was handed to them. This shows that the baby might think that the blue balls are special and the thing that makes them different is that they squeak. Schulz’s (2015) research showed that babies were more likely to squeeze the ball when the evidence was represented to the population of the balls. After the first and second groups, a third group was made where they took one blue ball from the mostly yellow box. In this group, Schulz (2015) predicted that the baby would think all the balls squeaked. She found that babies were equally likely to squeeze the ball given to them as the first group. This shows that babies are making predictions and assumptions about the world based on what they experience. This is shown again in the second experiment Shulz (2015) did. In this experiment, two researchers would show the baby how to play with a toy. In one group, the toy would work for one of the experimenters but not the other. When the toy was given to the baby and the toy did not work when they tried to play with it, the baby would hand the toy to their mother. This suggests that the baby thinks that there is a way to get the toy to work, but it only works if you know how to make it work. In the second experiment, the toy would work once initially, but not work when played with a second time for both experimenters. When the baby is given the toy and the toy does not work, they reach for a different toy, implying they think the toy is broken.
Visual perception is not the only way infants learn about the world. They also use their ears. We know babies prefer their mother’s voice over other voices because that is the voice they have heard the longest while inside her uterus. They also prefer sound patterns they heard a few weeks before birth over new ones of their mother’s language over other languages (Keil, 2014, p. 100). However, in terms of cognition, the most important sounds we learn to hear are the sounds that make up language.
Infant perception has shown that when it comes to distinguishing gender, we are not inherently aware of male and female differences. Rather, we learn them through exposure and learning. Because that exposure happens very early on in the mothers uterus, infants learn to perceive the voice of their mother. And because their mother is often the face they see the most, infants learn to distinguish her face from other faces. When not exposed to mens faces, they do not learn to distinguish between them as easily. This research shows that while infants categorize men and women, they do not perceive one as better than the other. The information they take in does not put a value on men and women, rather it splits them into categories.
Language to Cognition
Language is the tool humans use to share what is happening in our heads. We use language to communicate complex and abstract ideas. Other animals do not seem to have that ability to the extent humans do (TED-Ed, 2020). Language is also deeply rooted into our biology. Language has influence in our perception, motor skills, and thought (TED-Ed, 2020). Language comprehension can also be seen in the brain. Each word we know is associated with a neural circuit in our brains that calculates the likelihood of that word being used in a sentence (TED-Ed, 2020).
Even though language is hardwired into our brain, we are not born knowing language. We are, however, born with a great ability to learn it. We are born with the ability to distinguish between all sounds in all languages (Keil, 2014, pp. 263-264; Kuhl, 2010). Being able to tell these sounds apart is how babies start to acquire language. Infant’s brains do statistics with these sounds, similar to how adults comprehend language. The brain makes a probability of hearing that sound again. The brain later does the same thing with words and sentence structure (Kuhl, 2010). However, we quickly lose the ability to learn new languages as we grow older (Keil, 2014, p. 281; Kuhl, 2010).
Because language is interconnected to thought and perception, once we have language, we can start reasoning and making decisions about the world. The development of reasoning was laid out into 4 stages by Jean Piaget. The first stage is the sensorimotor stage. Babies are in this period from birth to two years old. They perceive the world using the sensations in their body and their reflexes (Keil, 2014, p. 309). The next stage is the preoperational period, which lasts from age 2 to age 7. In this period, children’s perception of the world is egocentric. They cannot think abstractly about the world and cannot break problems into different components (Keil, 2014, pp. 308-309). The third stage lasts from age 2 to 12 years old. This is the concrete operational period. During this period, children learn to split problems into different components. They can then manipulate these components to solve the problem (Keil, 2014, p. 311). The last period lasts from age 12 and onward and is called the formal operational period. During this time, children learn to think more abstractly. They are able to use hypothetical-deductive reasoning to solve problems and find multiple solutions (Keil, 2014, p. 311).
However, Piaget’s theory is not perfect and does not reflect exactly what is happening inside the mind of developing children. Firstly, some of these errors made by children in the preoperational period can be explained by limitations of the working memory. When shown a series of rods, each longer than the next and labeled A through E, the child will often say B is longer than D. The child is not making a reasoning error when they say this, rather they are struggling to keep the lengths of all the rods in their mind at once (Keil, 2014, p. 314). Similarly, children will say there are more daffodils in a vase when asked if there are more daffodils or flowers. This is not an error in reasoning either. The child’s language development is not yet done, so they are making a language error rather than reasoning (Keil, 2014, p. 315)
Learning and language are very interconnected. Through language, we also learn how to categorize and socialize. Oftentimes, we will even categorize people. In Part 1, we discussed the importance of narrative in shaping beliefs. However, narratives are not the only way in which we categorize people. We also use labels. Label learning happens very early on in children. We know they can differentiate people by skin color, but racial categorization comes differently. Rhodes, Leslie, Bianchi, and Chalik (2017) found that language is a big factor in creating label categories in children. In their study, they showed children a picture of a cartoon person in a blue outfit. They then told the child different things about the cartoon person. There were 5 different ways they told the child about the cartoon. They used either generic language, specific language, no label, no properties, and specific language plural. Each category referred to the cartoon as a “Zarpie”. In the generic language group, they referred to the Zarpies generally (“This is a Zarpie. Zarpies eat flowers”). In the specific language group, the researchers referred to the Zarpie individually (“This is a Zarpie. This Zarpie eats flowers”). In the no label group, they referred only to the property (“This one eats flowers”). In the no properties group, they said it was a Zarpie and did not give a description of a property. In the specific language plural group, they implied a smaller categorization of the Zarpie (“This is a Zarpie. These Zarpies eat flowers”). The researchers then showed the children two different cartoon people, one in red and one in blue, and asked them which one was a Zarpie. Rhodes, et al., (2017) found that using generic language leads the child to perform more social categorization.
The Rhodes, et al., (2017) study showed how easily children categorize groups of people. When we create social categories like this, we are more likely to stereotype. This is where many biases can arise. If a child is raised hearing “Only girls play with dolls” or “boys don’t cry”, they are going to have a bigger categorical divide between men and women. Using generic language for boys and girls can cause a mental divide in characteristics between men and women, when in actuality many of those characteristics overlap.
As described in Part 1, there are various bio-ecological systems that can affect a child’s development of sexist or feminist values. These systems often act as reinforcers to each other in that respect; children learn certain values from their parents (microsystem), then have those values reaffirmed and new ones instilled once they enter school (mesosystem), and start consuming mass media and otherwise interacting with society at large (exosystem). All of this is further influenced by the child’s culture (macrosystem), which dictates social norms (e.g. acceptable behavior and presentation for women versus men). To put it simply, culture influences norms which influence people via media, education, etc., which trickles down into parental behavior. Parents then reinforce these norms with their children, which creates a difficult-to-escape cycle of behavioral modeling.
Much of this reinforcement occurs through language and overall perception, the processes of which were described prior. Again, generic language can be an especially sneaky culprit in the spreading of sexist beliefs; it often leads children to “acquire completely novel social categories based on otherwise arbitrary criteria” (Rhodes et al., 2017), such as the prerequisites for being a woman including liking pink and having long hair. Babies and young children also do this with things they perceive in other ways as well. As Laura Schulz said, babies “see a few rubber ducks and learn that they float, or a few balls and learn that they bounce. And they develop expectations about ducks and balls that they’re going to [have] for the rest of their lives” (2015). In other words, babies and young children tend to take singular experiences with novel stimuli (e.g. the primary female presence in their life, such as their mother) and generalize those experiences to the wider applicable group (“all women must be homemakers, like my mom”).
This can best be illustrated through one of our personal experiences, in the case of author AS. AS’s mother was the primary breadwinner for her family, while her father stayed at home. This is the reverse of the expected sociocultural norm of a stay-at-home mother and working father. AS didn’t think much of this arrangement until she entered school (the mesosystem) and had other classmates comment on it; many of them did have stereotypical work-family arrangements and found it strange that AS did not. One classmate even asked AS if her mother didn’t love her, because his mother (within his microsystem) told him that “good moms” stay home with their children because they love them. When AS’s father came to pick AS up from school, other mothers would alternate between finding him suspicious (he was often the only father in the waiting area amongst a sea of mothers) and praiseworthy (he lauded for “stepping up to the plate”). These experiences are indicative of systemic sexism in a number of ways. One, the implication that AS’s mother was less of a loving mother towards AS because she worked is rooted in sexist cultural beliefs that a) a woman’s role is “in the home” and that they are required to give up other aspirations outside that role once they reach the ultimate goal of motherhood, and b) women who do maintain roles outside the home are ultimately worse mothers because doing so makes them uncaring and less attentive towards their child’s needs. Two, it implies that men are incapable of being competent parents (also a sexist assumption). Them fulfilling basic parenting tasks is regarded with suspicion because they’ll either be inept at the task or have ulterior motives for doing so, and when they do engage in such tasks (successfully or not) they’re praised when a woman wouldn’t be, due to parenting being expected of women and the bar being so low for men. Through this example, we can see that sexism is present throughout all the major bio-ecological systems.
However, even though that is the case, all hope is not lost. As a child’s primary social relationship for much of their early years, parents have the power to shape their child’s prevailing views around feminism. Parents should have age-appropriate talks with children about gender stereotypes and the diversity of the human experience in that regard; if your child asks why their mom works while all their other friends’ moms stay at home, that’s a good opportunity to talk about why a certain parent might work instead of the other and how every family should do what is best for them, rather than reinforce that traditional work-family paradigms are the only way to go. One tool parents can use to help children grasp such complicated concepts is child-directed speech; this form of speech uses a slower cadence, higher pitch, and has the speaker enunciate words more clearly so as to better encourage comprehension (Keil, 2014, pp. 267-68). Simpler words, shorter sentences, and grammatical correctness are also emphasized. Children across cultures prefer listening to this kind of speech (Keil, 2014, pp. 101), as it helps attract and maintain a child’s attention so that they can better understand the concepts being explained to them. Other ways to broach such topics include presenting children with age-appropriate feminist media such as picture books like Robb Pearlman’s Pink is for Boys, or Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Paris Rosenthal’s Dear Girl. Books and other media like this use child-directed speech and interesting visuals to convey that being a girl, or a boy, or anything else doesn’t adhere you to what society tells you those identities should be (and even if you do fit into those stereotypes — like a girl who loves pink or a boy who love sports — that doesn’t make you any less either). They convey that people are diverse, even within social categories, so the sweeping generalizations that many young children make about people in certain categories aren’t always going to be accurate — and that’s okay.
Talking isn’t enough, however. Parents should follow through with the feminist messaging that they give their children and allow them to roam outside typical gender norms and expectations, should the child so desire. If a girl wants to go wrestle in the mud or a boy wants to play dress-up with dolls, they should be allowed (if not outright encouraged) to do so. Backing up their words with actions will help better reinforce feminist values in their children, as well as combat conflicting sexist messages that children may receive outside their microsystem. This will allow children to hold onto said feminist values as they grow up and interact with the wider bio-ecological systems — they’ll be able to spread those values to people around them, such as friends, coworkers, spouses, and even their own children. This will help perpetuate feminism as a wider cultural norm, and hopefully mitigate the continuation of trickle-down sexism.
External forces such as those found in the micro-, meso-, exo-, and macrosystems influence children’s perception of the world, specifically with regards to people. These perceptions come about through our interactions with the world and shape our thinking. As we develop language, our cognition about the world becomes more complex, and we become prone to making shortcuts in the form of biases, particularly sexism. In combating this, understanding how perception and language feed into these biases is a good place to start. As such, parents should remain in open communication with their children and each other about issues concerning sexism, so as to work towards counteracting them.
How to Raise a Feminist Part 3: Learning, Culture, and Social Essentialism
In Part 2, we discussed Bronfenbrenner’s bio-ecological systems theory in the context of perception and language development and how it affects children’s cognitive growth. Bronfenbrenner’s bio-ecological systems theory is the modern interpretation of Lev Vygotsky’s work in the early 1900’s. Vygotsky’s work has had a large impact in both research and educational circles. He argued that culture and language are a large part of childhood development. His theories are useful in discussing ways for parents to create anti-sexist ideologies in their children. As children develop a greater sense of self and become more aware of others, they can also become more aware of actions that hurt others and themselves. Using an understanding of how children develop biologically and cultural influences on their development, parents can help children better navigate sociocultural pressures.
Lev Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory of Learning
As discussed in Part 2, language and cultural context are important to developing ideas and skills. This idea comes from Lev Vygotsky who theorized that children do not learn by themselves, but are a part of a community that gives them information (Keil, 2014, p. 337). Vygotsky describes the zone of proximal development, which is a higher level of skills or understanding above a child’s current level. For children to learn and grow in the zone of proximal development, they need adult help. An adult who works well with children will know what the child will need to teach them the next level (Keil, 2014, p. 338).
The way adults help children while in the zone of proximal development is by providing scaffolding. Scaffolding is the process of teaching. Good scaffolding will support the child’s current level of understanding while promoting learning of the next level (Keil, 2014, p. 338). An example of good scaffolding in a task would be physically showing a child how to do it, followed by doing it with the child. Giving them only a verbal step by step process is not as effective at stimulating learning. This form of learning is still dependent on language. The child learns by matching the language with the action. This also changes what is being learned between languages, as each language is different and holds different meanings, even if the task being learned is the same.
The zone of proximal development is a useful tool to understanding how children learn. However, it is useless if we do not know the child’s current skill level. Not only do you need to understand a child’s current skill level, but you need to know what the domain of knowledge you are trying to teach them. Researchers have outlined 5 core domains that follow Vygotsky’s theory of development overtime through experience and interacting with the world. They are psychology, physics, spatial layout, number, and biology (Keil, 2014, p. 320).
In Part 2, we talked about how infants learn about physics with the A-not-B task. We established that infants can memtally hold an object’s location but are unable to manipulate the environment to demonstrate their understanding. However, some physical interactions are simpler, such as how objects cannot pass through each other. Infants understand this. However, the way they understand this is by experiencing this phenomenon until it becomes habituated. A similar style of learning can be seen in spatial relations. As soon as infants can explore, they start by making cognitive maps of their surroundings (Keil, 2014, p. 321). However, when learning spatial reasoning, they often make errors. Piaget theorized that children can only see layouts from their point of view (Keil, 2014, p. 321). When on the phone, children might point at an object and say “that” to the person they are talking to, even though the other person cannot see it. The way children can learn their way out of this egocentrism is through experience. This can be taught by understanding how egocentric the child is and practicing with them.
Counting is another skill that takes time. Research shows children innately know that one object corresponds to a quantity of one and that more objects means the number of objects is greater (Keil, 2014, p. 324). When it comes to verbal counting, they learn through socializing with adults. By watching others count, they learn that numbers go up in a certain order. Eventually, when the children learn the order, they are able to verbally count. However, they have not yet connected with the last number they counted to as the number of objects they are counting (Keil, 2014, p. 325). This, too, can be taught with adult help.
As children experience the world, they start to develop a naive understanding of the natural world. They develop a folk understanding of biology and psychology (Keil, 2014, p. 327). Innate biology beliefs also appear to be culturally universal. These beliefs are that life can be organized into groups (amphibians vs. fish vs. birds), the physical qualities of an organism are what make it belong to that category of organism, that the physical characteristics reflect the environment the organism lives in, and that organisms need to have food and water in order to live (Keil, 2014, pp. 327-328). More complex biology, however, is learned through experience and adult teaching.
Psychology is also something children have an innate learning of. Children develop a theory of mind, or the idea that individual people have their own mind and memory. This leads children to develop a sense of self and how they are different than others (Keil, 2014, p. 468). However, parts of innate psychology are not universal. What we learn comes from interacting with other people and people behave differently depending on the culture. This is where a lot of sexist ideologies come from. Children believe boys do not have emotions or that girls are stupid because that is what their culture tells them. Being anti-sexist means combating these cultural beliefs. However, the way we teach anti-sexist beliefs has to also reflect a child’s current level of understanding. If you try to explain in detail the difference between men and women and all the nuances that blur the line between the two, they will not understand. It is better to explain things as simply as you can with children. For example, if a child asks “why does mom cook?”, the answer is not “because it’s her job as a mother.” The answer is “because she likes to cook and it’s your parents responsibility to feed you.” If a child asks why a man is wearing a dress, you can tell them men can wear dresses. If a child asks why a trans woman is not a man, you can tell them it is because they did not want to be a man. Sexist ideologies are shared through the adults who do not correct sexist beliefs and behavior. The child will learn that this sexist behavior must be okay because it is not being corrected. As a result of these beliefs, children will internalize them, causing social and psychological damage.
Culture and Cognition
As children grow, their cognition and memory grows with them. As it grows, children need to learn how to use it. One of the early steps in learning to use memory is the development of metamemory. Metamemory is our ability to remember what memory is and how to use it (Keil, 2014, p. 350). Children learn this the same way they learn the core domains. They have to interact with and experience memory. This, like other forms of learning, is influenced by culture.
Language and memory are deeply tied. In one study, two- and three-year-old children were asked to recall a memory from a few months earlier, when their language skills were less advanced. While recalling that memory, the children used the level of language skill that they had in the memory (Fivush & Nelson, 2004). The way caretakers remember events will also influence how children remember. Children of parents who talk about their memories in detail will also have a lot of detail in their own memories (Fivush & Nelson, 2004). Children will also refer to memories in terms of important days like birthdays or holidays instead of months or years (Fivush & Nelson, 2004). All of these things vary by culture, influencing differences in memory.
Fivush and Nelson (2004) also discuss memory as a way of differentiating between self and other. Children learn through sharing memories that not everybody has the same experiences. They also learn that memories can be different between people even if they share experiences. Perceptions of events differ between people, even if the event experienced is the same.
The way we are influenced by culture, in part, comes from our ability to know what other people are thinking. Saxe (2009) discussed how our moral reasoning changes without this ability. Without being able to know what others are thinking, we tend to ignore the intention of people’s actions and focus more on the result.
The way we think and remember influences our treatment of others as well as our view of ourselves. Parents and culture drive our memories and cognition to develop specific ways. When our culture leans to a more sexist way of thinking, we influence a more sexist mindset in our children. Children learn regardless of the environment we put them in. It is important to make sure that the environment is beneficial for both the children and for our community.
Intuitive Theories about the World
As children interact more with everything around them, they naturally start to theorize about how the world works. Some of these theories are considered “naive” (see above) or “intuitive” theories — theories based on what are effectively “gut feelings,” psychological hunches that aren’t necessarily accurate reflections of reality. For example, a young child might see only girls depicted as playing with dolls, and only boys depicted as playing with toy cars. In that case, they might theorize that those toys are inherently gendered, and that only each respective gender can play with their respective toys. In reality this isn’t actually true — toys are for everyone — but to a child this theory might make the most logical sense based off of their lived experiences.
Children develop intuitive theories about pretty much everything from physics to cosmology (Keil, 2014, p. 334), but what we’re most concerned about here are their theories concerning biology and psychology. With biology, children often hold a number of core beliefs, briefly discussed in preceding sections. The first of which is that groups of animals and plants can be organized into hierarchies based on how they relate to each other, e.g., taxonomically (Keil, 2014, p. 327). Secondly, children believe in essentialism and vitalism; that living beings (animals, plants, the like) have distinct inner “essences”, deeply-rooted qualities that determine their exterior, observable properties (“essentialism”) and that vital forces, like food and water, enable living beings to grow and move (“vitalism”; Keil, 2014, p. 327). Thirdly, they believe that organisms have properties that are adapted to their needs within their environment — everything lives in a place that they’re suited to be in (Keil, 2014, p. 327). Children also tend to attribute inanimate objects with human-like emotions, wants, and desires, (a belief called “animism”; Keil, 2014, p. 330) such as saying that it rains because clouds are sad and crying.
With regards to intuitive theories about psychology, as children grow older, they start to gain the ability to think not only about their own beliefs and desires, but also that of others and how those things might explain another person’s behavior. This is called a “theory of mind” (Keil, 2014, p. 468), referenced previously. Developmentally, at around four or five years old is when children start to recognize that people other than themselves hold beliefs about the world around them. This is evidenced by many false-belief tasks, such as those conducted by Saxe (2009), wherein younger children (around three years old) were unable to reason that a false belief could lead someone to make an undesirable decision, as compared to the slightly older children (five years and older), could. In that vein, children (five- to six-year-olds) are also more likely to use evaluative reasoning to make broader attributions about others’ behavior. This kind of reasoning involves viewing people as entirely good or bad, and predicting future behaviors based off of that (Keil, 2014, p. 494). Meanwhile, older children (nine- to ten-year-olds) tend to use trait-based reasoning, which allows them to consider individual qualities and situational factors when making character judgments (Keil, 2014, p. 494). This enables more nuanced, less “black-and-white” thinking.
A notable concept stemming from theory of mind is social essentialism. As implied by the name, social essentialism describes an intuitive theory that people have internal characteristics (“essences,” as mentioned prior) that are responsible for surface properties like gender, age, ethnicity, and so on (Keil, 2014, p. 334; Rhodes & Mandalaywala, 2017). Within this framework, children tend to believe the following about socially-based categorization: membership to a category is clear and definitive (e.g., you are either a member or not a member), category distinctions are objective (they’re not made-up, and can be found in the natural world), category members share properties, membership is stable (with some exceptions, like age-based categories), and lastly that membership is causal (members will have the same features, even if raised “differently”; E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, November 20, 2020; Rhodes & Mandalaywala, 2017). For example, in the U.S., by the age of four, children have been shown to expect that a female baby will grow up to share stereotypical feminine characteristics, even if she grows up surrounded by males (Rhodes & Mandalaywala, 2017). Children at this age also treat gender as more important than other observable features in predicting behavior and physical properties, and explain stereotypical preferences as being due to category membership (e.g., “she likes tea sets because she is a girl”; Rhodes & Mandalaywala, 2017). A major component of how children decide what categories to essentialize is their exposure to generic language (Rhodes & Mandalaywala, 2017; see also Part 2). A child that grows up hearing “boys don’t cry,” “girls can’t play sports,” or any other number of gendered generalizations without being corrected will eventually take those catch-all statements and start applying them to everyone they come across, because to a young brain that sees people in evaluative terms, that’s the most logical thing to do. Naturally, this leads to stereotyping.
Over time, of course, children develop more nuanced attributional skills (discussed above), which can help them grow out of essentialist thinking. However, given how pervasive gendered stereotypes are in the U.S., it’s unrealistic to assume that children will simply “grow out of” any undesirable beliefs that they gained due to social essentialist thinking. If children are not corrected when they essentialize harmful stereotypes, that information will solidify into prejudice over time. To illustrate, let’s say a child absorbs the stereotype of “only girls can wear dresses and makeup,” and isn’t corrected by a caregiver that in fact, anybody can wear those things. Over time, the child will further internalize this idea, and it will become less of a belief and more of a concrete fact in their mind. If not challenged, as an adult they might come to believe that women who don’t wear dresses and makeup are “lazy slobs” and “unprofessional,” or that men who do wear those things are “not real men” or call them slurs. Depending on their gender, they might feel obligated or scared to wear these things, out of fear of such judgements and the greater consequences they could bring (such as, social ostracization, lost job opportunities, and so on). As such, it’s important for caregivers to gently correct children if they essentialize harmful rhetoric, and present children with alternative messaging. If a child says that dresses are only for girls, or that pink is a “girl color”, caregivers can gently state that clothing and colors are for everyone. Affirming actions like that can help children move into more nuanced evaluations of the world around them without hanging onto any vestiges of harmful essentialism.
Developing a Sense of Self
In addition to learning about the things and people around you, an important aspect of growing up is developing a sense of self — that is, the various ways individuals think about and become aware of themselves (Keil, 2014, p. 468). Ulric Neisser proposed that there are five distinct senses of self that emerge over time: the ecological self, the interpersonal self, the extended self, the private self, and the conceptual self (Keil, 2014, p. 469-70). The ecological self emerges from birth onward, and describes the sense of perceptual self-awareness we gain by physically moving through a space (such as a baby knowing to crawl around a pile of toys rather than plowing through). The interpersonal self also automatically emerges soon after birth, and true-to-name is the “immediate sense of ‘I’ and ‘you’ that arises when we first encounter and interact with another” (Keil, 2014, p. 469). This is best seen through interactions between children and their parents, wherein even infants will seek to mimic a conversational flow when babbling at their parents and being responded to in kind (Keil, 2014, p. 469). Moving on, the extended self emerges from age four onward, and involves being able to remember ourselves as we were in the past, and think about what we might be like in the future.
The private self is our sense that we have inner thoughts and feelings that no one else is privy to unless we explicitly communicate them. Children (from four years onward) develop this sense of self as they interact more with their peers and realize that not everyone thinks or feels the same way that they do (e.g., as they develop a theory of mind). Lastly, the conceptual self involves our sense of our roles in broader social or cultural contexts, such as family or gender roles (Keil, 2014, p. 470). This sense of self starts developing from around four or five, but develops throughout the lifespan as children grow and enter into new and different sociocultural contexts. As it is highly dependent on the influence of a child’s culture and the people around them, this is perhaps the self most susceptible to sexist rhetoric. This is another example of how if a girl grows up in a culture which consistently tells her that women can only be a certain thing (say, a homemaker) then she’s going to internalize that and come to believe that that’s what she must become, even if she doesn’t necessarily want to.
On that note, gender identity is also tied into one’s sense of self. Gender identity is essentially one’s internal identification with the sociocultural and behavioral traits typically associated with overt femininity (being “female”), overt masculinity (being “male”), some combination of both, or neither (Human Rights Campaign, 2011). Children start to become aware of their own gender (or at least, the gender their parents have socialized them as, usually male or female) and its stereotypical characteristics (hair, clothes, etc.) at around two years of age (Keil, 2014, p. 472). Around this time they also begin learning about gender-typical activities and toys, such as putting on makeup and playing with dolls for girls, and shaving and playing with toy cars for boys (Keil, 2014, p. 472). At around four, children develop essentialist views of gender (i.e., that something intrinsic within the body determines it), although this changes at around ten years old and onward (around the onset of trait-based reasoning), where they start to recognize more social and environmental influences in the formulation of gender identity (Keil, 2014, p. 472). Biological components, like one’s sex (specified by one’s X and Y chromosomes and genitalia, a “male” or “female” designation) and the resulting hormonal environments can also play a role in this identity’s formation (Keil, 2014, p. 474). It stands to note that the development of gender identity is very much a “nature via nurture” process; the interplay between the biological and sociocultural influences are incredibly complex and interwoven, and as such are difficult to separate out from each other or generalize.
In many ways, gender identity and the conceptual self are deeply intertwined. Both are highly subject to sociocultural gender norms which inform a child on what certain genders should be or do. For example, in U.S. culture women are commonly stereotyped as quiet and submissive people who stay at home to care for their household. The stereotype additionally includes the position that they don’t like sports and aren’t good at repairing things, but they do like frilly dresses and make-up, and are very clean and put-together at all times. Conversely, men are stereotypically seen as strong, boisterous leaders who go out and do big things. They’re characterized as liking sports, the outdoors and doing hands-on work, but are seen as messy, lazy, and overall bad at domestic duties like cooking or caring for children. As discussed at length in parts one and two, these sorts of cultural stereotypes trickle down into the lower bioecological systems, and can deeply affect how people view themselves and those around them. Are you really a woman if you don’t want children? If you can’t cook well or don’t care for traditionally feminine clothing? Are you really a man if you are shy and less physically adept? The answer to these questions is yes, but existing in a culture that tells you otherwise can cause some damage to your self-esteem.
Self-Esteem and Self-Efficacy
Self-esteem is the way we evaluate ourselves and our own self-worth, as well as the emotions that might arise from said evaluations (Keil, 2014, p. 474). This often involves comparison of the self to others, as it’s difficult to evaluate oneself without a baseline to compare to (which usually is other people). Self-esteem changes throughout the lifespan, with said changes following a relatively predictable pattern split into four periods. During the first period, which occurs in the preschool years, children have extremely high self-esteem about all facets of themselves (Keil, 2014, p. 475). This is related to a tendency preschoolers have toward excessive optimism and may be an adaptive function which prevents them from getting overly discouraged when failures occur (Keil, 2014, p. 476). In the early school years, children still have high self-esteem, but it’s less extreme. Children in this period begin to make social comparisons, but only to past versions of themselves, wherein they can definitely tell that they’ve physically grown or gotten better at a skill (Keil, 2014, p. 475).
Self-esteem begins to dip in middle childhood, as children parse out their self-image into various components. For example, a child might notice that while they excel over their peers in certain activities, they do poorly at others — this kind of self-scrutiny and heightened social comparison results in more negative self-evaluations and lower self-worth than in prior periods (Keil, 2014, p. 475). This could especially be the case in situations where a child doesn’t adhere to gender stereotypes and becomes self-conscious (such as, a boy who is bad at sports compared to his peers, or a girl who feels she isn’t feminine enough). In later adolescence and into adulthood, self-esteem becomes even more dependent on complex and context-dependent social comparisons, and individual differences in interpretation of these comparisons become more apparent (Keil, 2014, p. 475). Some adolescents may take a negative self-comparison and view it as an irredeemable flaw, while others would take it as a challenge to improve themselves, such as an example given in Part 1 where a girl was discouraged from playing sports due to her gender, only to either a) play despite the stereotypes, or b) quit because she believed her gender would only hold her back.
In a similar vein to self-esteem, self-efficacy is also an important part of our sense of self. This refers to people’s beliefs about how capable they are of achieving their own goals, and as such is more task-specific than self-esteem (Keil, 2014, p. 476). This is something that can easily be distorted by sexist messaging. A prominent example of this is the gender disparities in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. Research has shown that even when women perform as well or better on science and math exams, they still report significantly less confidence (self-efficacy) in the subject when compared to their male peers (Dasgupta & Stout, 2014). This is largely due to the pervasive cultural stereotypes in the U.S. designating girls as “bad” at STEM fields, while boys are encouraged to pursue them. As such, these fields are vastly male-dominated, even though women are just as capable with the subject matter — they’re being enculturated to believe that they’re not good enough, and thus discouraged from pursuing it further.
In Part 1, we explained how children are biologically predisposed to learn about the world around them. We explained Bronfenbrenner’s Bio-ecological systems theory, and how through those systems we are fed narratives about gender that aren’t necessarily healthy or reflect reality. In Part 2, we discussed this in the context of perception and language development and how it affects children’s cognitive growth. To reiterate, as we develop language and our cognition about the world becomes more complex, we become prone to making shortcuts in the form of sexist biases. Lastly, in this part, we explored Vygotsky’s impact on theories of cognitive development, and how children continue to make generalizations about the world as they develop a sense of self and others through regular dialectical interactions with caregivers and peers. These dialectical exchanges (parent-mediated conversations, teacher-mediated feedback in school) cause children to internalize strict, essentialist views of gender.
To combat the systemic sexism and children’s natural inclination to form misguided generalizations, parents should use the following tools. Children internalize the messages that they receive, so parents should be mindful of the narratives that their children are exposed to. Ideally, parents should present their children with feminist media whenever possible (see Part 2 for reccomendations). Parents should be aware of where their children are at developmentally so as to best inform how parents approach discussing sexism with them. This can include the use of child-directed speech, scaffolding, and zones of proximal development, as previously discussed. When the child is exposed to sexist ideologies, parents can use these tools to help challenge their beliefs. For example, using phrases such as “clothes are for everyone” can help change the notion that only certain genders can wear certain types of clothing, a common misconception that children develop. Furthermore, parents should put “their money where their mouth is” so to speak, and let children engage with gender-nonconforming presentation and pastimes, so long as they have the means to. Only telling your kids that “clothes are for everyone” (for example), and not letting them follow through with that sentiment in their play effectively counteracts the message at hand. Overall, the efforts we make now for our children will help them build a better future for everyone.
About the Authors
Alyssa Schell is a senior at Pacific University majoring in Psychology and minoring in Japanese. She is hopeful that this project will help caregivers better navigate the many pitfalls that systemic sexism presents when trying to raise feminist children.
Xandre Couchot is a senior at Pacific University majoring in Psychology. He hopes parents will consider the recommendations listed in this project and self reflect using the knowledge discussed.
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