Q: I see a lot of TV shows where women are not treated respectfully. How would you recommend talking to kids about sexism in the media? It’s rather like having a drunken bully over for dinner every night. How do you explain to your kids why you keep letting this kind of person into their home?
Worried about Women in San Francisco, CA
A: Dear Worried about Women,
The drunken bully example is a really good one, and it applies to all kinds of behavior, including sexism. Sitting down to watch TV does mean that you are inviting people into your home, as well as the behaviors and ideas they act out. What I like best about your description is that you yourself wonder why you keep inviting these people over if you don't like how they talk and behave. If you wouldn't invite over a person who behaved in ways you dislike, then do the same for the celebrities that invade your living room — make sure they treat people in ways that you admire. I challenge you to actively invite the people and ideas and ways of life that you want your children to model, because they will learn to copy whatever they see.
It is a good idea to speak to kids directly about sexism and other disrespect they see and hear in media. If they see behavior that is disrespectful, and no one is there to help them question whether that behavior is good, then they come to believe that is an acceptable way to treat people. If you have younger children and you see behavior that makes you cringe, question it out loud in front of your kids and ask what they think about what they see, whether it's a nice way to treat people and what would have been a better thing to say or do in that situation. Or simply turn off the TV and tell them why you are doing so.
With older kids and teens, you can approach this conversation in the way that I address it with kids who sit down in my exam room wearing their iPods—I always ask to listen to their music. When I hear something that’s sexist (or violent, or racist), I ask them, “What do you think of this?” Usually they say something like, “It doesn’t bother me. I just listen to the beat.” But when I ask them how they’d feel if their little sisters heard that song or were called by the names in it, their faces fall in horror.
Remind your teens that when they use media that contain such messages, they are making a statement that those messages are acceptable. Encourage them to think about what those choices say about them–and think about the same issues for yourself. Challenge the bully you keep seeing and hearing, and kick him out!
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,