He Works, She Cleans: The Sexism of Kid Lit

Believe it or not, things are not getting better

Pernicious sexism is invading your evening snuggle time. So concludes a study that looked at children's picture books from the past 100 years. Of particular concern is that even books from the last decade or so keep women at home cooking dinner and send men out to the workforce to make money.

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The research team, led by sociologist Amy DeWitt of Shepherd University, selected the books from a catalog of 1,400 children's books compiled by a panel of distinguished librarians. The 300 randomly selected books were then divided into groups based on when they were published—between 1900 and 1950 and then every decade from 1960 until 2000. Researchers categorized parental actions into five categories such as nurturing behaviors, discipline and working outside the home.

For parents who have spent any amount of time with picture books, especially if they're written by Richard Scarry, it's not surprising that moms are frequently found in the kitchen or kissing boo-boos and dads toss around the pigskin and go off to work. What is surprising is that not much has changed.

If young kids are always seeing moms at home cleaning up and dads playing or coming home from work, kids start to understand what roles will be expected of them as men and women.

Though rigid gender roles have softened a little, books in 2000 show mom going off to work or dad with an apron around his waist about as much as books published in the 1970s did. The gains made in that decade, though, reversed in the 1980s and '90s when kids' lit returned to earlier notions of gender roles, according to the research.

Pacific Standard, which reported on the findings, says these things matter because books are such a significant part of some children's early socialization. If young kids are always seeing moms at home cleaning up and dads playing or coming home from work, kids start to understand what roles will be expected of them as men and women.

I spend a lot of time trying to beat back these and other sexist stereotypes that often crop up on TV and in movies and the most innocent of books. I've always pointed these things out to my daughters, who are 8 and 12. When I'm reading to my son, 4, about firefighters and EMTs, I use female pronouns, even when the pictures are so clearly supposed to be men.

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But that only works until the kids can read and not even for that long. I can never remember which nurse I referred to as "he" and whether I've deemed female the sanitation workers or the home movers in our copy of Richard Scarry's Busy, Busy Town. My son remembers and calls me out. It's exhausting trying to stay consistent.

I'd like a little help from the writers, illustrators and publishers, themselves.

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