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My precocious then-five (now six) year-old daughter asked me to explain to her why it is that boys are allowed to go shirtless, while girls are not..."because," she observed, "it seems like boys have more rights than girls." Those were her exact words. I was heartbroken, taken completely off guard, and did not have a good answer. Can you recommend some books or other resources that would give her a sense of the issues at play here and some background for understanding sexism, gender relations, double standards, etc.? We have tried to teach her to be open-minded about gender roles, but do sometimes bow to local expectations about things like going outside half naked. I'd like to help her understand the "why" and "how" of things, instead of giving her an oversimplified "You can do anything you put your mind to" speech.

As the mother of two boys (ages seven and four), I have to respond to similar gender questions in my household. In general, I try to answer first and foremost with a reassurance that even if that is how it "seems," that isn't the way it has to be. I often turn to children's books to highlight what's possible, and I specifically read stories to my son's that have strong female characters—Lilly, Olivia, and Annie (the latter from the Magic Tree House series). In fact, in that series there are many books that tackle gender issues—such as the one that discusses the era of Shakespeare (when girls weren’t able to act). Together, Annie and Shakespeare were able to change that and essentially re-write history. We also have a great (non-fiction) book about female pirates. I think that it's important to be honest about limitations placed on people (including those on kids in general) and then work through how to change that—or discuss how others have changed it.

There are some great programs for girls—Girl Scouts, Girls, Inc., The Arts Effect—and I think they do a great job of getting girls to believe in their own power. That confidence boost goes a long way.




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