If a child is told often, from a very young age, that he or she is limited (slow or weak) in some way, do you think the child will become an adult who believes he or she can accomplish anything of which it dreams? Or, will the child become an adult who is restricted and unsure of their capabilities? I believe what a child hears over and over has a significant impact on what the child sees as its potential.
When I was a nursing student I remember hearing that nurses and other caregivers talked to male and female newborns differently. I didn’t have enough time as a student to fully appreciate this truth. Later though, when I began to teach OB (obstetrics) to nursing students, I rotated classes into and out of labor and delivery, newborn nursery and postpartum care. During three years of observation I indeed saw what I had heard was true. It began as soon as the child slipped from their mother’s body and into the cold, bright and noisy delivery room.
When a boy was delivered there was congratulatory talk, often booming loudly and as the boy infant began to cry everyone talked about his strong lusty voice. As he was wrapped in a blue blanket there were predictions of his first touchdown, layup or hole-in-one, whatever might please the proud father. When genitalia appeared without the external apparatus it was likely to result in hushed “ahhhhhs” as a pink blanket was held out to swaddle a baby girl. The remark most often heard was regarding her appearance using words like beautiful, dainty, maybe even predictions of her being a little heartbreaker. The love and gratefulness for a healthy newborn was not unequal, one not valued more than the other, but the words used were different.
Without a doubt the newborn would be referred to as “big” or “little” not according to the actual measurement of weight and length, but according to gender. There were exceptions, to be sure, if the child was a great deal smaller or larger than average, but nearly always a boy was referred to as “big bouncing” baby. A girl, even when over eight or nine pounds, was a “sweet little” girl.
This trend continued in the nursery while the newborn was bathed and examined and then transported back and forth to the mother’s room for feeding and bonding over the next hours of hospitalization. If you doubt this, I challenge you to listen carefully as your friends and family members discuss the babies in their lives. Observe the words that are used when the infant is spoken to and sung to and handled. It may seem insignificant at the time since the baby does not yet understand words, but the truth we need to remember is that this is just the beginning of a persistent message. Day after day a child is reminded that she is the “weaker sex,” to use an outdated term, and unable to do or be anything in the world to which she aspires. This is not intentional, not sinister, not done out of unequal love, but these facts do not dilute the message. Words matter, especially when repeated through years of developing a sense of who we are and what we are capable of achieving in life.