It is a well known fact that many children’s stories reinforce gender stereotypes. When I was a child, most fairy tales had the same narrative of a prince charming saving a princess in distress. Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel...you name it, they all convey the same message. Fortunately today’s young children have a wider range of books to choose from. In these stories girls don’t need to be saved and boys don’t need to be saviours. Nevertheless, the saving-the-distressed princess narrative continues to reach our children’s ears through books, movies and a variety of other media including gender roles in the family.

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While protecting children from these narratives seems impossible, we can always tell our children why we do not enjoy certain Disney movies. These narratives can also be contrasted with gender atypical children’s books, so that our children can have the bigger picture. The efficacy of gender atypical books in breaking gender stereotypes among children have been proved by multiple research projects. Let’s take a look!

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A 2007 study on Zimbabwean girls enrolled in grades 4 to 7 exposed them to biographical stories of women succeeding in non-traditional careers. These girls later reported that there was no career path that was appropriate only for men or women, and most of them also altered their future career plans from gender typical jobs to gender atypical jobs! This was not the case for girls who were not exposed to stories of women in non-traditional jobs.

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Another study gave 2-5-year-olds books in which children of their same sex were playing with gender atypical toys. While children are usually always inclined to play with gender typical toys (for example girls tend to play with dolls and boys tend to play with cars), reading these books resulted in an immediate increase in play with gender atypical toys.

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These studies show that reading books that break gender stereotypes can influence children’s play and occupational choices in a positive way. They help boys and girls understand that other possibilities are also open to them.

More research needs to go into the influence of children’s books in breaking gender stereotypes. Studies have shown that girls are more inclined than boys to move away from gender typical choices after exposure to books that portray gender fluid choices. Cultural and familial factors and how deeply a child believes in gender roles will also influence their decisions after reading non-patriarchal children’s books.

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Nevertheless, we can all agree that such books have the potential to cause positive change and break gender stereotypes by providing children with different world views and narratives. Continued exposure to such narratives can help children apply gender fluidity to things other than play and career choices. Books that show fathers and mothers sharing housework will allow children to think beyond gender roles.

Keep this in mind when you pick up the next book for your child. A better book can help your child dream wider and bigger!