Football is not just for boys

We often hear phrases such as “Boys will be boys,” or “Stop being such a girl!” and don’t give them a second thought. But for young children, who develop an awareness of gender characteristics by age two, these comments can be more formative than we think.

Our responsibility as parents is to open our children’s minds as opposed to encouraging these outmoded stereotypes. Gender equality starts at home.

As a parent of two boys and a girl, I have often struggled with the dynamics of fairness and equality myself. Growing up with one sister, I was always taught that girls can do anything that boys can and I strive to teach my children the same. It’s not always easy nor is it a perfect science, but here are some ways to help your children view both genders as equal both in capability and opportunity. 

1. Role Modeling is Key

The home is the first place your children pick up their social cues. From the onset, encourage them to view themselves as unique individuals as opposed to boys or girls. Strive to praise independent effort and nurture distinct interests within each child at home. In our household, I also, try to avoid falling into gender-typical stereotypes within the household by sharing chores and decision-making with my your partner as evenly as possible. Each family member should feel responsible for helping out within the house and tasks should be shared and rotated. Finally, it’s critical that every voice is respected and fully heard. 

Outside of the household, it’s helpful to point out successful success stories of people of all genders, both men and women across sport, business, science, and politics. If young children see a wide variety of strong leaders, thinkers, and athletes early on it will deter them from putting limits on themselves and those around them. Also, when speaking to children about these high profile personalities, it is important to keep the dialogue objective as opposed to personal, which sometimes unconsciously creates gender stereotypes. 

2. Mix It Up

There are some interesting studies on innate gender preference for toys as well as a parent’s role in socialising certain types of toys for each gender, but overall I have found that other factors including personality traits and birth order also play a part in what each child gravitates towards. The good thing about having a mixture of boys and girls in our house is that they all have access to different types of toys and play together with Lego, doll houses, or the play kitchen depending on the day. We mix up and rotate toys, games, and books regularly so that the children have exposure to a variety of different material (fiction vs. non-fiction books for instance).

I’ve also found sport to be an amazing equaliser for young children as they enjoy coming together and competing as a team. We’ve often had the choice of putting our daughter in a girls’ only class vs. a mixed group and almost always chose mixed. This will likely change as she gets older, but for young children it’s often better to emphasise teamwork and skill-building as opposed to gender differences. 

3. Encourage Education and Diversity 

Awareness of the world around us is critically important. It’s important to talk through history with your children (in an age-appropriate way) so that they understand the progress we have made in society in terms of women gaining the right to own property, have an education and vote. But children should also understand that while some countries have made tremendous progress, others have lagged behind. For instance, in two of the Wonderbooks Rosni and the Hundred Hungry Goats and Munni’s Rooftop School, we learn that access to education is difficult in many impoverished countries, particularly for girls who are often the first to miss out. 

4. Less Is More

In general, I have found that constantly calling things out for being sexist is negative and not wholly productive. The less of an issue we make of gender constructs, the more children can feel free to be themselves. With good role models around them, access to a variety of resources, activities with a mix of boys and girls, and a proper curiosity about the world around them, the next generation should thrive and progress even further.

Erica Jalli is a mother of three based in London who regularly writes on all things parenting here

*Picture credit: Charlie Forgham-Bailey for Save the Children

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Diversity in children’s books

If they can see it, they can be it… 

Children need role models in their books. If children can’t see themselves in a story’s character, how can they relate?  

It’s been refreshing to see that recent movies like Disney’s Encanto and Pixar’s Turning Red feature characters from more diverse backgrounds. Books, too, have a wider range of topics and have moved on somewhat from princesses, knights and wizards.

But the question remains – is diversity in children’s books where it should be? Is it representative of society and the little readers? Let’s recap. 

 

How is ethnicity represented in children’s books?

A report by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) revealed that 5% of children’s books released in 2019 had an ethnic minority main character. This is a stark improvement from 1% in 2017. As a comparison, 33.5% of the UK school population were of minority ethnic origins, so there is still a huge gap. On the other hand, 38% of children’s books featured animals as main characters. Thus children are almost eight times as likely to encounter an animal than a human main character who isn’t white! An emphasis on animal characters is distracting, and diverts everyone from addressing the issue of  under-representation of ethnic minorities. 

We are on the right path, but we still do not see enough multicultural books to reflect the diversity in our society and that needs to change. 

Bolo's Best Song Wonderbooks by Save the Children
Bolo is a young singer who attends Save the Children’s training centre in Madagascar. Here, we help young people like Bolo, to learn a trade – like vanilla farming. Bolo uses the money he earns from vanilla farming to record his songs. He is also the star in the Wonderbook ‘Bolo’s Best Song’.
Where are the girls in the books?

Another major recent study has shown that while gender bias in children’s books appears to have declined significantly over the years, it still exists. It found that the male-to-female ratio of protagonists varied according to author gender, age of the target audience, character type, and book genre. 

Over the last decade the representation of male heroes compared to their female leads, was at a ratio of 1.2 to 1.  Interestingly, the study finds that this representation was also not uniform. For example, male authors were much less likely than female authors to feature girls as their protagonists. In fact, male authors were three times more likely to write a male protagonist than a female one.   

Munni teaching a community literacy lesson in Patna, India. She is our heroine in the Wonderbook ‘Munni’s Rooftop School’. Save the Children community workers talked to her family to delay her arranged marriage and allow her to study. We supplied Munni with paper, pencils and all the support she needed to get started!
How is disability represented? 

According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s 2019 study, only 3.4% of children’s books have disabled main characters. Compare this statistic from Scope that 9% of children in the UK have a disability.  

Teen blogger Megan advocates that disability does not define her – she is a daughter, student, friend too, she just happens to use a wheelchair. She makes an excellent point: how many disabled characters can you name off the top of your head. Probably not that many…  

The children’s book industry needs to do better to break the stereotypes and normalise our perception on children books protagonists. There is scope to portray the myriad of ways children exist and interact with the world. Ways that many children experience themselves or know someone who does. 

Deaf children
Children at a school in Nepal playing card game to learn sign-language. Save the Children visits regularly to check on their progress.
What are Wonderbooks?

At Save the Children we stand for every child. Diversity and inclusion are two of our key pillars and amplifying children’s stories is crucial to our work. Our children’s book subscription, Wonderbooks, was born from real life stories and inspired by the children we work with around the world. Children are children, no matter their background or physical abilities. So don’t just take our word for it and check out Wonderbooks. Whether it’s Seima in Cambodia saving the day, or Munni inspiring girls to learn in India, or Maryam in Nigeria speaking out against child marriage. They are our true heroes. 

Munni runs her own girls school in India
An extract from Munni’s Rooftop School book by Wonderbooks
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How to talk to your children about refugees

As we are grappling with one of Europe’s worst refugee crisis, it’s normal to be wondering what to share with your children and how they are processing all the news.  

Whilst we try to shield our children from the current terrible war in Ukraine, it’s highly probable they will have heard about it. Whether it’s a neighbour taking in a Ukrainian refugee family, or the school collecting donations, or overhearing a discussion on television, so it’s best to be prepared. 

How and what you tell your children about the refugee crisis, depends on their age and personality. For example, one may be a worrier and the other a warrior. Here are some guiding points to help you support your kids and answer questions or worries they may have. 

 

Do some research

In order to be prepared to handle the hard questions it is helpful to check some reliable sources on the topic (the UN Refugee agency, UNCHR, is a recommended one). Globally we are facing the highest level ever of people displacement on record, and even before the war in Ukraine started global refugee numbers were estimated at 26 million. Almost 12 million people are believed to have fled Ukraine and 6.6 million were forced to flee due to conflict in Syria. On top of that, half of these refugees are children. Alternatively, if your child has access to the internet, explain to them to be careful of social media news sources and if you can, give your own tips on trustworthy sites to check data. 

 

Listen to them

You can break the ice and start with an open-ended question by asking your kids what they already know about refugees. In addition, you might want to ask a follow up question such as ‘Why do you think these people had to flee their homes?’ and ‘What can we do about it to help?’. Listen, and give them space to express their worries feeling and questions. Try to answer their questions truthfully and don’t be afraid to say you don’t know or express your own feelings. Name the feelings you / they might feel and keep your answers simple using child friendly language. For the very sensitive child it might help to get them to write down their worries and put them in a ‘worry box’ and revisit later. After you can throw them away if the child is ready to let go of those feelings. 

 

Make them feel safe and protected

It is natural that some children might relate to the refugee children and feel powerless and scared. Some children might be worried they would have to leave their homes and become refugees too if the war spreads. Acknowledge their fears and reassure them that they are in a safe place. If they are concerned about the current wellbeing of refugee children, you can tell them about how charities like Save the Children are creating safe spaces for children to play and learn.  

 

Talk about values and how they can help the refugees

This could be a good opportunity to teach our children about humanity and values of compassion, kindness and inclusivity. Encourage your kids to put their energy into positive action to help the refugees! You could pass on a message of solidarity by signing our petition asking the government to do more to safeguard Ukrainian refugee children. Together you could further write a letter to your local MP calling for more help for refugees seeking asylum in the UK. Or you could run a fundraising activity together with your family and friends to raise awareness.  

 

Read together about refugee children with our Wonderbooks 

Our collection of children’s books features a real life story book about a Syrian refugee boy, Asif and the Songbird. It’s an endearing book that tells us about Asif and his pet bird, living a happy life in Syria before they had to escape to Lebanon. It has a  heart-warming feel and it teaches us about resilience, friendships and humanity. The book comes with a parent guide helping you and your child to reflect together on important questions such as ‘What do you think the refugees might miss about their home?’ and ‘What would you ask Asif if you could? 

By signing up to our children’s subscription stories you will be helping many more refugee children like Asif. Find out more here 

Asif and the Songbird - a true story about a boy escaping conflict in Syria and his pet bird
Asif and the Songbird – a true story about a boy escaping conflict in Syria and his pet bird
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