Social listening: News of an emerging ‘dream gap’ spurs expert conversation

Sparked by the latest research, leaders in childhood development share strategies on helping girls realize their full potential

There’s a hot topic generating chatter among child psychology experts. No, it is not about kids and social media or time spent in front of violent video games. Instead it’s about young girls and understanding the moment when they start to think they are not smart.

A 2017 study published by Lin Bian, Sarah-Jane Leslie and Andrei Cimpian shows that by age 6 many girls become less likely than boys to view themselves as very smart.

These self-limiting beliefs, perpetuated by gender stereotypes, can have long-term effects on girls and their sense of confidence. This phenomenon is called the dream gap.

If this messaging is everywhere, what can we do to shift the tide of influence on girls? According to childhood development experts, a range of approaches can help.

Watching what you say around young children, and how you say it, is essential, believes Dr. Jennifer Hartstein, a New York City psychologist who specializes in working with children.

“Words are powerful,” she writes. “How we speak to girls is so important. Even when we think we are saying the ‘right’ things, we may be inadvertently reinforcing stereotypes. Rather than saying things like: ‘Girls can be astronauts, too,’ say ‘Girls can be astronauts.’ The former may cause them to feel like they are an afterthought. The latter encourages the commitment.”

Hartstein also recommends showing young girls examples of role models who are leaders, like female politicians and scientists. If girls can see real examples of whom they want to be, they learn that their dreams are possible.

Kim Wilson is the co-director of the UCLA Center for Scholars and Storytellers (CSS), a nonprofit that aims to advance youth-targeted storytelling by grounding content in child development research. She agrees with Hartstein that finding role models for girls is crucial. On her website, she suggests making that quest an exciting family activity by checking out cool women who are running for office and taking your daughter to hear them speak.

Play helps girls understand the possibilities because this is when children practice the gendered behaviors they see from role models.

                                                                 -Dr. Yalda T. Uhls


“I say let’s have fun with empowering the girls (and boys!) in our lives,” writes Wilson. “Instead of trying to find ‘all the right everything’ to introduce them to, why not make it an adventure together? Find what works with your family dynamic, but make the goal finding awesome women near where you live, like an author reading at your local library.”

One of the easiest ways to help your child dream big is by harnessing the power of play, says Dr. Yalda T. Uhls, the founder and executive director of UCLA’s CSS.

“Play helps girls understand the possibilities because this is when children practice the gendered behaviors they see from role models,” she writes . “Caregivers can support their children so they start to internalize gender equality” by exposing them to books and television shows with strong female role models, and making dolls just as available to boys to play with as they are to girls.

Paying attention to the subtle influences that we provide for our children, each expert agrees, can help to bridge the dream gap – and usher in a new generation of enlightened adults.

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