Teaching My Five Year-Old Son That Girls Are Not “Just Girls”


August 13, 2015 by Katia

When I think of birthdays, I’m reminded of a post I wrote a couple of weeks before my son’s sixth birthday in May and never published until now.


My son is five, which means he’s enthusiastically deciphering the world. All five of his senses, and possibly a sixth, are actively engaged as he collects data to help him solve this big round riddle. My son watches and listens closely. He asks questions, makes observations, draws conclusions and sometimes defaults to inaccurate generalizations. He believes that there are rules to explain everything and he seeks them out like a scientist, identifies and questions them like a philosopher and occasionally creates them like an ancient conjuring up a myth. He is also just five and sometimes he repeats things because they sound cool, or because he likes the way they roll off his tongue stimulating those overworked senses or just for the heck of it. 

My son will be turning six in a couple of weeks, which means he’s in senior kindergarten and he interacts with other boys and girls his age and when he says things, I don’t always know which ones are his “things” and which ones are borrowed and whether they represent a bud that needs to be cultivated or nipped or whether they’re a “just for the heck of it” kind of thing. That is why I had to pause and consider my actions when during a weekend family stroll, I heard him tell his little brother “but Daniel, she’s just a girl“.

The girl in question was Scarlet Johansson dressed up as her Avengerscharacter on a poster decorating the window of one of our local eateries. The boys naturally gravitated toward the colorful image and soon enough they were busy picking favorites. Once little brother made his selection known I drifted away and was about to board the parent time machine and travel into the future where — to his bemusement or embarrassment — I’d be sharing this endearing detail with Daniel the teenager, when I was interrupted by my older son’s comment. 

September 2013 081

My five year-old is the kind of boy who would stick his neck out for others. Not once or twice have I watched him protecting a friend, confirming through tears of pain and sobbing that the injury he endured during a heated game was indeed an accident. He’s the kind of boy who mentors his younger peers in their mixed JK/SK classroom. He’ll step in for his little brother if he feels that I’ve wronged him and he will rarely strike back. He’s the kind of boy who was best friends with a girl until he started attending JK at the age of four. Which is why I wasn’t prepared. I didn’t have a strategy in place and I fumbled through my attempt to tackle this potential issue, discovering along the way that what my heavy artillery consisted of a feeble “but mama’s a girl too“. Unsurprisingly all I got in return was an embarrassed shrug and half a smile before he went back to the important stuff, plotting against Bad Guys.

There are two methods for cultivating the uniqueness of self: method of addition –  paradox, method of subtraction.” says Milan Kundera in ImmortalityFive year-old boys use both. Unlike in the author’s observation they do so in attempt to construct self while eliminating uniqueness. In their search for rules five year-old boys turn to their peers and study their behaviours:

Boys do…

Boys don’t…

Like scavenging birds who constantly replenish their nests with new finds, five year old boys use the method of addition by ceaselessly collecting new attributes to augment their budding self. To conform with the Platonic idea of Boy, boys have to love zombies. They have to know the characters in Star Wars. They have to use certain words and expressions and when they’re trying to get the attention of their friend across the street, they have to speak in a certain voice. They will use the method of subtraction with equal enthusiasm in order to equate themselves to other boys: they subtract the appreciation for the Frozen soundtrack from the idea of Boy and replace it with the opposite – disapproval. They subtract the love for certain colors and TV shows some of which they used to watch. They subtract the use of certain expressions like “my love” in reference to them, because five year-old boys don’t. To five year-olds the world consists of opposites. Boys are what girls aren’t. Is “just a girl” merely a derivative of that perception? Maybe, but does that-which-is-not-you have to necessarily equal bad? And how do you talk to boys about equality when that boy vs. girl contrast is one of the current building blocks of the personality they’re working so hard on cultivating?

I’ve been trying to teach my son that there are no boy or girl-specific colors. There shouldn’t be any gender-specific games or jobs that women can’t perform. There are different types of families. I try to pick my battles and don’t insist on tolerance for all T-shirt colors. I’d rather let my son practice his identity augmentation by dismissing the innocent color pink, but when it comes to using an expression that, even if not meant to do so, belittles another gender it seems like a more dangerous path to walk on.

Just a girl” to a five year-old boy may not bear the same meaning as would those words out of a grownup’s mouth, but words can create and perpetuate realities. Say something often enough and it becomes a thought pattern then a belief. Words can worm their way into your lexicon and from there to your mind allowing the context to construct itself around them later, which is why I won’t let my son to use the saying “just a girl” again, innocent as it may be at this stage. I don’t want it to establish a hold on his language then mind and remain there long enough to eventually gain the same meaning we, grownups, attribute to it.


This post is a Finish the Sentence Friday post. Please visit our hosts:

Kristi at Finding Ninee

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25 thoughts on “Teaching My Five Year-Old Son That Girls Are Not “Just Girls”

  1. Hmmmn…she is just a girl…Your son is not alone in his self discovery. I mean the world has the picture of girls and boys divide splattered everywhere. It’s there in our homes, when we choose chores that boys and girls should do; in our work places and in the most conspicuous place: the media(TV, Social media). And our kids are a generation glued to the media which means a lot of their ideologies are drawn from how things are expressed through these channels. So i’d say the repetition game would be good in order to embed the idea that mummies are strong and they are girls too. I teach my son to respect girls and you can imagine that comes in the middle of a fight with his sister or daughters of our friends. I am hopeful that these lessons about girls being different but human,strong and able to do what boys can do will stick as he matures.

    • Katia says:

      Great observations. I agree with you about the “embedded-ness” of these messages. As an individual who is kind and respectful, but he’s also (now) six. I’m assuming it’s an age and not a personality thing but I never miss an opportunity to talk about how powerful and capable women can be. Thank you so much for the thoughtful comment!

  2. Hmmm as a mother of two girls who don’t believe anything is not open to them that is open to their boy friends I would be furious if a parent DIDN’T pull their child up for saying this! It’s such a shame that words like this come out of such a young mouth! Sounds like you are doing a great job with him. My 7-yr-old has had boys telling her that football isn’t for girls. Well luckily the England women’s team did a LOT better in the world cup than the mens so she was able to prove him otherwise! But again it saddens me to hear these words – it can only come from the parents…..

    • Katia says:

      I know how hurtful it is to hear such words. I’m not backtracking by any means from my post but I feel as though I’ve exposed him to criticism and as his mom I want to make sure that I provide full context. My son would never not include anyone in a game under the pretense they’re a girl or a boy. I’ve seen him stand up for kids who were not included. I also haven’t heard him repeat that specific sentence since. I keep paying attention to expressions like that for all the reasons mentioned here and LOVE the example about the British women league. I’ll be using that for sure to illustrate my point. Love how your daughter was able to come up with that. That’s very smart. 🙂

  3. I love this idea. It reminds me of the quote “It’s not our job to toughen up our kids to face a cruel and heartless world.It’s our job to raise kids who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.”

  4. kathrynsully says:

    I love this post. I hope that I never have to have a discussion like that with my son, but understanding the power of peer pressure on children I’m almost positive it will happen. You are absolutely right, those kinds of words and thoughts need to be corrected early on, and hopefully as we correct our kids, they will be able to influence their friends who were influencing them in the first place.

    • Katia says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful and tactful comment. I hope you don’t have to have this discussion either. After hearing him say that I witnessed a situation on the playground where a boy actually didn’t include a girl in a game. His mom pulled him aside and told him we never not include Simone because they’re different than us. I spoke to her afterward wanting to find out more about how she handles these situations and she said she shows him videos of women athletes and other powerful women on YouTube . I thought that that was a really clever approach.

  5. My son is 6 and he’s definitely trying to figure out his place in the world as a boy. He refused to sit on a chair because it was pink and doesn’t want me to write love notes on his school snack anymore (but a note in his lunch box is fine). He adores his 5 year old sister, female friends and female cousins so I don’t think this is a sign that he’s starting to devalue femininity. I think he’s trying to navigate in a world where girls are told they can play with dolls and trucks while boys are still sent subtle signals that trucks are ok but dolls are just for girls. There’s a whole movement to encourage girls to be whatever they want to be but boys are discouraged from roughhousing.

    I have not yet heard a boy refer to someone as “she’s just a girl” but I have heard many girls say “he’s just a boy” without being discouraged. Why is it different when a girl says it? I don’t hear a lot of outrage from adults when a girl tells a boy that synchronized swimming or figure skating isn’t for boys but a boy is on the path of misogyny if he tells a girl that football isn’t for girls. You can do your best to make everything gender neutral but the fact is, kids gravitate to and appreciate most the gender with which they identity. The key is to try to teach them (and emulate) that differences between genders, races, beliefs, capabilities, etc. are what make life so amazing and beautiful. Differences are good, they are normal and should be appreciated.

    And for goodness sake, we need to stop blaming everything on “the parents”. We all do our best and if our kid says something insensitive, it doesn’t mean that we’re failing. It’s an opportunity to open up a discussion. Great post Katia!

  6. Kristi Campbell - findingninee says:

    Katia, this is so well said and so important. We’ve been having similar conversations here – mostly because one night, Tucker burst into tears saying that he doesn’t want to be beautiful because girl superheroes don’t have powers that are as cool as boy superheroes do. Sigh. It’s sad to me that so young they identify pink with girls… xo

    • Katia says:

      I know! Even as young as Daniel they already associate certain things with girls. Some of it is media related, some of it is observing their moms and some has to do with comments from the older generation. You’re right, it’s hard to battle these messages when they’re so prevalent. I’m glad to hear so many of us are going through the same. Xoxo

  7. Dana says:

    Having a child of each gender, these kinds of discussions came up more naturally when my kids were younger. However, society and the media are strong influencers, and our kids are bombarded with images and ideas that make them think “boys do this” and “girls do that.”

    It’s tough to counteract that, but we can. I have no doubt you will, Katia.

  8. Oh Katia, what a thought-provoking post! You included such excellent information about this tricky topic, and I’m really glad you did. It’s so important how we raise our kids to be individual thinkers but at the same time, influence their ideas with our values and perspective. I think that above all, we are their greatest role models, and how we talk and exhibit our beliefs and our principles- they too will see significance in those same things. BOTH parents have such a strong impact on their kids… and it’s our job to truly sink our teeth into those teachable moments.

    I would show him that video- “Run like a girl” or the countless others out there!

  9. sara says:

    As a mother of a son (now 11) I have been appalled at some of the gender thoughts that have come out of his mouth, probably the most outrageous when he was your son’s age. We can’t apply our adult’s ideas of gender equality and politics to our children and be offended by them, or at least we shouldn’t ( I admit to being offended at his ideas of me and the importance of what I do as a mother, but they are more my issues than his). That doesn’t mean that we can’t gently correct them and provide examples and ideas of women that may be outside his current understanding.

  10. Deb says:

    Keep fighting the good fight! I know people think I am crazy and tiresome for being so vigilant about this issue, but as the mom of a boy AND a girl now, I feel like I owe it to them to fight the cultural biases that seep into every day life.

  11. A wonderful post! I am blessed with three children from almost 13 to 22, two boys and a girl, and two of the three are LGBTQ. I am thrilled to watch each of them stick up for each other, and others, and willing to whoop the world to succeed. I have tried to teach them that differences are what make each of us beautiful and amazing, and it stuck! LOL! Have an amazing weekend!

    • Katia says:

      Nothing as rewarding as watching them be true to themselves and stick up for each other. Hope you had an awesome weekend. Your kids sound amazing.

    • Katia says:

      Aw, thank you so much! As usual I’m probably the last one to the party. I’m a terrible procrastinator and I’ve only ever once picked up a blogging award by actually participating and writing a post but these nominations, and more so the fact that someone is actually reading and enjoying my blog, mean the world to me. I’m making a public promise here to pick up all of my awards and acknowledge their contributors. Thank you so much!

  12. Enjoyed this post. You have won over a new follower,

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