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Health Team

Talk to your kids about Kamala Harris and other elected women

Posted December 3, 2020 3:43 p.m. EST

— In her acceptance speech, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris made a request of America's children.

"Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities, and to the children of our country, regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message: Dream with ambition, lead with conviction and see yourselves in a way that others may not, simply because they've never seen it before."

Undoing gender stereotypes is hard, and it requires conversation. Parents, here's where you have work to do.

Our kids could be paying attention to the historic nature of a woman and person of color being elected to the second highest office in the country, as well as the unprecedented number of Republican women elected in the US House of Representatives.

They could be seeing the possibilities that this election opens up: that girls and people of color can be leaders; that leadership may look and sound different to what they are familiar with; and that men can be married to leaders and support them. (Take a look at future second gentleman Doug Emhoff, who appears to be celebrating with unmitigated confidence and joy, or the partners of many of those House trailblazers.)

There are a lot of lessons embedded in this moment, but kids are unlikely to get there on their own. Undoing gender and race stereotypes -- and if you think your kids don't have any, sorry, we all do -- is hard work. Here's how to help make the most of these historic nominations for your daughters and, just as importantly, your sons.

Our kids are wired for bias

It's nice to imagine our kids as color-blind and gender-blind. Childhood as a time of innocence is a favorite fiction of grown-ups.

In fact, our kids are wired for bias, and as such, are natural observers of race and gender differences. To avoid talking about these differences with your kids, is, unfortunately, not that different from endorsing them.

"There is an exciting reckoning happening among White parents in America right now," said Ryan Lei, an assistant professor of psychology at Haverford College, who researches how children develop stereotypes anad biases about race and gender. He believes White families are starting to realize what families of color have long understood: Ignoring biases doesn't make them go away.

Our kids are constantly being inundated with messages about what boys and girls do, and which skin color comes with which character traits and which doesn't. Such biases and stereotypes form at a much earlier age than was previously thought, new research has shown, and even take shape in the preschool years.

Who can be a leader?

As such, Harris' nomination is likely to go against most kids' understanding, conscious or not, of who can be a leader.

"This is an important change in representation, a really important moment in time," said Christia Spears Brown, a professor of developmental, social and health psychology at the University of Kentucky and author of "Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes." "We know that kids pay attention to the race and gender of the president. Most of them are aware that all presidents have been men and, before Barack Obama, all presidents were White."

Children are likely to extrapolate assumptions from such observations, and can even draw unsavory conclusions, Brown said. Thirty-five percent of children under the age of 9, and 7% of children over the age of 9, believed it is against the law for women to be president, a 2008 study found.

Following Hillary Clinton's run for the presidency, Brown and her colleagues revisited the subject in 2016 for a study. They found that while the number of children who believed it was against the law for a woman to be president went down, roughly a third still believed that the reason a woman had never been president was because women lack desire, and men make better leaders.

Representation can help change this retrogressive thinking. Brown anticipates that Harris' position will have a positive impact on girls' and children of color's self-esteem and occupation choice, based on prior research. "It is hard to dream something if you never see someone like yourself doing it," she said.

It will also help those who identify as White and male to see their non-White and non-male peers in a different light.

Celebrating Republican wins

Voting for a candidate, or even personally liking a candidate, are not required when acknowledging the boundaries the candidate has broken to our children.

"The most important thing for achieving gender parity is to have women from both parties running and winning elections," said Jennifer Pierotti Lim, cofounder and executive director of Republican Women for Progress.

Both Republicans and Democrats benefit from making room for women and people of color in leadership roles, as a win on either side sets a precedent for all.

"Any election that is won (by a woman or person of color) is a huge achievement in setting what the new normal is. It doesn't matter if you are a Republican or Democrat, our children are going to have a biracial woman as Vice President," Lim said.

"Most children won't look at her and see partisan politics. They will see what's possible."

The same goes for Democrat parents acknowledging the rise of Republican women in the House. Lim has been glad to see more Republicans, who have traditionally shied away from talking about identity politics, speak directly about the challenges women face when running for office. The more everyone talks about the obstacles to power faced by women and people of color, the more children understand the ways in which the playing field isn't level—and why that needs to change.

In the long run, Lim hopes that these victories will not be seen as partisan, but the beginning of a necessary historical shift toward more inclusive leadership.

"History is not going to remember Harris as the first democratic woman Vice President, she will be remembered as the first woman Vice President."

How to talk about this moment with kids

The mere image of a woman at the podium isn't likely to be enough to counter a lifetime of stereotype conditioning. "Once kids get stereotypes they are really hard to change and they rarely change on their own," Brown said.

Parents can point out Harris's historic win to their kids and explain what makes it historic, but be careful with their words, Lei advised.

Many of us might be inclined to say something like, "Girls can be leaders, too," Lei said. But by inserting that seemingly innocent "too" in there, we are suggesting that men are the default leaders. Instead, he suggests starting the conversation with something like, "Isn't it cool that a woman and person of color is leading our country in this way?"

Brown wants parents to be specific in describing Harris' role, as their children might misunderstand it.

"My worry is that they, inspired by children's literature, will see Harris as Biden's helper. Kids will distort what they are seeing to fit their stereotypes," she said, referring to a well-documented phenomenon.

"Developmental psychologists have done studies in which they've, for example, shown kids a picture of a woman in a lab coat and kids will later misremember it and say the woman was cleaning the lab."

After you've established what exactly Harris will do--she is not there to clean, though presumably she will have great respect for the people, often women of color, who do clean--it can also be effective to show how Harris is one of many.

"Show it to be a pattern and not a one-off instance," Lei said.

You can point to the new Republican women in the House, "The Squad," as well as local examples. Maybe your school principal or mayor is a woman, a person-of-color or both.

As kids get older, Brown recommends engaging kids in a back-and-forth on the subject of racism, sexism and leadership.

"Have explicit conversations, asking them: Why do you think there haven't been any women as Vice President? Why hasn't there been a woman President? Why have most of them been white?"

Don't forget the first Second Gentleman

It's tempting, when a woman breaks barriers, to amplify the good news to girls, and only girls.

Harris' win "is just as important for boys, because we know we can't have gender equality until boys carry their weight," Brown said.

Harris also broadens our ideas of how a leader looks and acts. Boys might find a role model in her, just like girls have long found role models in men.

It's also worth taking a moment to note the historic role of her husband, the first-ever, soon-to-be second gentleman, Doug Emhoff.

Witness what it looks like for a man to be the one watching from the side while his female partner takes the stage.

Emhoff's Twitter bio leads with "dad"; leading with your parental identity on a public platform is far more common with moms. He has left his law firm, putting his career on hold to embrace his role as a political spouse. Chasten Buttigieg, Pete's husband and Emhoff's friend, described Emhoff as doing a "very good job at making people smile (and) making people feel included." He should be a role model, too.

Get to know Emhoff better with your kids, taking the first step to celebrate and normalize a dynamic that has been anything but normal for all of American history.

Through it all, you might want to share with your kids what it felt like when you were young, and the majority of leaders were White and male. Did it stymie who you thought you could be? Or, in the case of White males, project a singular model of success in which making it to the top was everything?

Don't hold back on any feelings you might have about these firsts; feelings are how your kids will know this really matters. Share you frustration with the past, and share your joy about what these elections might mean moving forward. Future Madame Presidents and Second Gentlemen are depending on you.

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