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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 09/22/2011

Highlights survey reveals kids’ ‘Mad Men’ like ideas of gender roles

The Highlights survey I wrote about yesterday asked children not just about parental worries, but also about some of their own ideas. A particularly troubling set of responses concern notions of gender.

The report released today is a compilation of the responses from the children’s magazine’s readers who answered a survey sent out this spring.

When asked about the difference between boys and girls, the vast majority responded as if they were living in the era of “Mad Men.”

These survey results come from children as young as 2. According to the report’s conclusions:

“There was a strong consensus from all respondents about what boys are better at doing. The highest response, sports (64.1%), was much higher than the next most common response, video games (3.9%). There was less of a consensus on what girls are better at, and the common answers included fashion/makeup (12.9%), cheerleading/gymnastics (10.2%), school (8.2%), cooking and cleaning (5.1%), and listening (3%).”

In some of the specific answers, particularly when asked if girls are better at anything, the answers revealed some alarming assumptions:

For instance:

“Being pretty wearing stuff boys can’t wear and wear make up. Having a lot of pink.”

“In cleaning houses because boys don’t sweep very well like girls do.”

“Girls are better at wearing high heels.”

“As much as we promote gender equality, it seems that kids are still growing up with messages that boys are better than girls at things like sports,” said Amy Lupold Bair, founder of Resourceful Mommy Media, who analyzed the survey findings for Highlights.

Much can be and has been written of the mixed messages we continue to send our children when it comes to gender. A few weeks ago, J.C. Penney pulled a shirt from its racks after an outcry over the text scrawled across the front: “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.” There was a reason it and its kin, overly sexualized school clothes, are on the sales floor at all. They keep selling.

Many of us parents talk to our children about equality but buy the occasional oddly anachronistic toy or book or shirt. Sometimes we think it’s funny, in an ironic way (Smurfette in heels, maybe), or sometimes we do it because our kid just really wants it (Disney has built an empire on the weak wills of over-tired parents).

I know my girls’ experience is schizophrenic on this front. They have a book about Abigail Adams, another about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and one with a cover illustration of a bikini-clad Disney princess so comely that it looks like the story inside will be less “G” and more ”XXX.”

Forces on this front are bigger than parental purchases, but they do play a role, especially when the children are younger.

And given the survey responses, it looks like yanking the “I’m too pretty” shirts hasn’t solved the problem.

By  |  07:00 AM ET, 09/22/2011

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