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July 1, 2021

Fighting stereotypes through storytelling

Did you know children as young as toddlers notice stereotypes? And by elementary school, children can believe that they are less good at math, reading, and other subjects because of their innate characteristics?

Chances are in our conversations with kids, we’ve heard stereotypes. “Boys don’t wear pink,” “girls are bad at math,” “Black people don’t like baseball,” and so on. Many of us would probably react with some degree of alarm if we heard a child say these statements. We might even have a quick moment of panic as we consider how we should respond. Luckily, we have the opportunity to turn moments like these into teachable conversations about important topics. 

It is critical to address and work towards dismantling stereotypes when they arise, especially when you hear them come from a child. Stereotypes are dangerous because they encourage people to believe sweeping generalizations about entire groups of people, and ignore individuality among us. 


What is stereotype threat?

Stereotypes also limit potential. This feeds into a phenomenon called stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is when people underperform when they become self-conscious about negative stereotypes pertaining to one or more characteristics that they possess (such as race, sex, body type, etc.). This phenomenon is clear in these examples: 

  • A study showed that when Black students were asked to indicate their race before taking a standardized test, they underperformed on the test. (Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. 1995).
  • A study found that when female students were asked their gender before an AP Calculus test, they underperformed on the test. However, if girls were asked their gender after the test, about 4,700 more girls would receive AP Calculus credit every year. (Danaher and Crandall 2008)


How to fight stereotypes

Stereotypes have far-reaching impacts on children, but as an informed adult, it’s important to know that there are many things you can do to counter stereotypes. Here are just a few:

  1. Avoid making sweeping statements about groups of people. 
  2. Use inclusive terms.
    • For example, don’t say “girls” or “boys” when referring to a group of kids. Instead, when gender isn’t important in what you’re saying, call them “students” or “children.”
  3. When your child is exposed to stereotypes, point out exceptions! 
    • For example, when you hear a child say that they are too big to be a ballerina or that Black people don’t like baseball, show your child examples of ballerinas who have all kinds of body types and Black baseball players and fans. Also, remind them what a stereotype is and that broad generalizations don’t represent every individual in a group. 


Fighting stereotypes through storytelling

Reading books with children can be an effective tool to fight stereotypes. It’s really important to make sure children aren’t reading books that further reinforce negative stereotypes. One great resource to use as you decide what books to share with your kids comes from the Worlds of Words: Center of Global Literacies and Literatures at the University of Arizona College of Education. The 10 Quick Ways to Analyze Children’s Books for Racism and Sexism includes many excellent suggestions, such as the following: 

  • “Look for active doers. Do the illustrations depict characters of color in subservient or passive roles or in leadership and action roles?”
  • “Role of Women. Are the achievements of girls and women based on their own initiative and intelligence? Or are they due to their good looks or to their relationship with boys?”
  • Consider the effect on a child’s self image: “Will all children of color from a range of backgrounds find one or more characters with whom they can readily positively identify?”

Another important resource is the Guide for Selecting Anti-Bias Children’s Books, which provides additional considerations to think about when selecting stories for a child. The Guide also makes the excellent point to “keep in mind the power of books—their words and their images—to nurture or, conversely, to undermine a child’s sense of self, positive attitude toward others, and motivation to act for fairness.”

Books can be an amazing tool to help have important conversations with children. Remember to always actively listen to questions and comments that children have when reading. Children have a wealth of knowledge and experience about many important topics and can have excellent insight. So keep an open mind and remember that you can learn from your child, just as they learn from you. By picking the right book and facilitating a meaningful conversation about complex topics, you and your child are doing incredible work to combat harmful stereotypes. 

Check out these read alouds of stories that fight stereotypes:

Race and Athletics

Firebird by Misty Copeland



Zoom by Robert Munsch


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