The pen is mightier than the sword, and we’ve clearly seen in recent times how easy it is for words to deceive and put us on the wrong path. Children are perhaps even more susceptible than adults to the impacts of words. For instance, words can instill in children from early on that some things are boy-specific, while others are girl-specific.
In a recent study, researchers analyzed 247 books written for children 5 years old and younger from the Wisconsin Children’s Book Corpus to see whether they could find significant gendered differences between these books. They did.
“The audiences of these books [are] different,” said Molly Lewis, special faculty in the Social and Decision Sciences and Psychology departments at the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and lead author on the study. “Girls more often read stereotypically girl books, and boys more often read stereotypically boy books.”
“Some of the stereotypes that have been studied in social psychology literature are present in these books, like girls being good at reading and boys being good at math,” the researcher added.
The books with female protagonists had more gendered language than the books with male protagonists. The researchers attribute this finding to “male” being historically seen as the default gender. Female-coded words and phrases are more outside of the norm and more notable. Intriguingly, children’s books were also found to contain more gendered vocabulary than adult fiction books.
The study only analyzed a small set of children’s books, but it’s plausible that these gendered differences are widely present. However, knowing that these differences exist is one thing — understanding their impact is another, researchers emphasize. We don’t know exactly how children perceive these differences, but being aware that they exist is a first step in the right direction.
“Our data are only part of the story—so to speak,” said Mark Seidenberg, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and contributing author on the study. “They are based on the words in children’s books and say nothing about other characteristics that matter: the story, the emotions they evoke, the ways the books expand children’s knowledge of the world. We don’t want to ruin anyone’s memories of ‘Curious George’ or ‘Amelia Bedelia.’ Knowing that stereotypes do creep into many books and that children develop beliefs about gender at a young age, we probably want to consider books with this in mind.”
“There is often kind of a cycle of learning about gender stereotypes, with children learning stereotypes at a young age then perpetuating them as they get older,” said Lewis. “These books may be a vehicle for communicating information about gender. We may need to pay some attention to what those messages may be and whether they’re messages you want to even bring to children,” the researchers conclude.
Journal Reference: What books might be teaching young children about gender? Psychological Science (2021).