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How to Teach a Nervous Boy to Talk to Girls

Preschoolers struggle with listening well and playing fair, but practicing good manners early will help boys grow into better men.

Anyone who has ever attempted to teach a preschooler to stop interrupting knows how difficult it can be to get on the same page with someone who can’t quite do the whole empathy thing. But if it’s true that all conversations with preschoolers are hard conversations, it’s also true that all conversations with preschoolers are also important conversations? Why? Because preschoolers are developing and refining their prejudices. They are, unless the adults around them convince them not to, learning to discriminate. And in all likelihood that discrimination will be about gender. That’s why, difficult as it may be, parents of boys need to convince their sons to talk to girls and, in so doing, push back against gender bias.

“The most crucial time in their lives for brain development is between the ages of zero to three,” explains Karlyn Rawlinson, a licensed preschool teacher with Total Child preschool In Chicago, Illinois. “If we want young boys to listen to and see girls as equals, let’s promote that and facilitate play amongst them often.”

Play is where a child makes sense of the world; if a child’s play experiences include girls as equals, so will their worldview. That’s a broad generalization of course, but a useful one, but even parents who try to cultivate an inclusive play space are contending with other cultural forces.

“The biggest reasons for separation I see between young boys and girls are the gender-specific toys and media. Providing open-ended materials during play, and encouraging children to try new things is crucial,” recommends Rawlinson. “I hear children say things like, ‘that’s a girl water bottle’ because of the pink color or the character on it. These are crucial teachable moments to address stereotypes. Pink can be for boys. Trucks can be for girls. We all like different things, and that’s okay!”

It isn’t about forcing boys or girls to play with a specific toy; it’s okay for boys to still like trucks or girls to still like pink. But believing that it is bad or wrong to like a toy simply because it is associated with the opposite gender reinforces the kind of biases that can cause problems later in life.

Not every troublesome behavior is necessarily predicated on gender; preschoolers are notoriously bad listeners in general, so parents will need to help them learn how to improve. Unfortunately, human communication can be very subtle, and parents themselves may not listen particularly well. It’s understandable — being the parent of a toddler or preschooler requires a lot of work — but if parents want their kids to maintain eye contact, listen without interrupting, and affirm that they are paying attention, that is how they need to communicate with their children and others.

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How to Teach Preschool Boys to Respect Girls

  • Play shapes attitudes: Play is how young kids prepare for the world, so giving boys and girls the chance to play together normalizes the routine compromise and cooperation they’ll experience for the rest of their lives.
  • Push back against marketing: boys and girls can like whatever they like, regardless of focus groups. Parents should support kids interests, but not let them denigrate others’ interests due to gender expectations.
  • Listening isn’t easy for kids: If a child is having a particularly difficult time remembering to wait for their turn to speak, a visual cue might help. Parents can establish a sign or symbol that means “wait your turn” to help remind kids to listen to others.
  • Consent is key: even innocent contact like friendly hugs or playful wrestling shouldn’t be one-sided. Teaching children that they have control over when they are touched helps them respect others and respect themselves.
  • Practice: Little kids are egotistical, and considering the feelings of others isn’t necessarily natural. Like any new skill, kids need lots of practice before they are good at it.

“A parent is their child’s first and most important teacher. Whether you know it or not, you are a model for your child,” says Rawlinson. “So, keeping that in mind, parents must first model any positive/appropriate behaviors and/or skills they want their kids to acquire.”

Probably the most important (and most controversial) lesson for preschoolers to learn is consent. There are disputes about how when to introduce this topic to children, but Rawlinson says that parents can start by teaching inherently curious and social kids to ask first before giving a hug.

“Not all children feel comfortable receiving a hug, and not all children want to be touched. We must remind both boys and girls to ask first,” advises Rawlinson. “This gives all children agency and a sense of empowerment. And if the answer is no, no means no. There’s always other ways to show affection: sharing a smile, or finding another buddy or loved one to give that hug to. Listening to children and validating their feelings is key for boys and girls alike.”