Making Sense

Tips for Battling Stereotypes

Help your kids identify and see through media generalizations.
Caroline Knorr Parenting Editor | Mom of one Categories: Celebrity influence on kids
Parenting Editor | Mom of one

What media teaches our kids about types

Storytellers have always relied on stereotypes as a shorthand way of explaining characters. Stereotypes are easily recognizable and understandable -- like the dashing-but-clueless Prince Charming or a tough-talkin' gal with a heart of gold. But as we all know, stereotypes are a delicate matter. They can bolster negative perceptions, justify prejudice, and reinforce sexism, racism, and other negative views about particular groups. Plus, they're insidious -- creeping into our attitudes without us even realizing.

Help your kids take a critical look at what stereotypes mean, how they paint so many people unfairly, and, most importantly, how they may misinform us about the world.

What are stereotypes in media?

Economic, gender, and ethnic stereotypes are all over kids' TV shows, movies, video games, and even music. White male heroes far outnumber both women and minorities in media portrayals. And although women have come a long way in how popular culture reflects their status, statistics show that women are still most often relegated to roles of love interest, sex object, or selfless saint.

Why they matter

The images our kids see powerfully inform their sense of what's "normal." When kids see the same class, racial, and sexual relations portrayed over and over, it reinforces class, race, and gender stereotypes. The characters kids see can become role models –- and kids may want to imitate the behavior they see. They may also form judgments about others based on portrayals in video games, in stories, and on TV.

Tips for parents of all kids

  • Start counting. When you're watching TV or playing games with your kids, keep a tally of the characters. How many are female? How many are male? How many are white? Do you see any correlation between the characters' race and gender and how they're portrayed? Talk about these observations with your children. These sorts of questions will help your kids build awareness –- and provide you with opportunities to further discuss stereotypes.
  • Find alternatives. Common Sense Media can help you find movies, books, and video games that run counter to these portrayals. For example, check our recommendations for Best Smart Movie Girls or Multicultural Books.
  • Don't buy it. Game makers and movie studios keep making products with unfair portrayals because people pay for them. Remember that you can vote with your dollars. 
  • Challenge assumptions. Depending on your kids' age, you can talk about common stereotypes and debunk your kids' perceptions. Use examples from the real world to show that media portrayals aren't accurate -- like all blondes aren't dumb, for example.
  • Talk about humor in stereotypes. Stereotypes can be humorous -- even ones that describe our own friends and families. But they can turn mean-spirited very quickly. For kids -- and adults -- it can be difficult to determine whether a joke based on a stereotype pokes fun inappropriately at a particular group or whether it's making fun of people who hold a prejudice against that group. One yardstick you can use is if your kids wouldn't make that joke in front of that particular group -- that means it's not funny.
  • Watch, play, and listen to the edgy stuff together -- and explain. Certain shows -- like Key and Peele, Saturday Night Live, Glee, and Betty White's Off Their Rockers -- explore stereotypes with humor and irony. But kids won't always understand these portrayals and need parents to explain them.
My kids are getting ideas about people from different cultures from media. Some of it's good, some not so good. How should I explain the difference?

About Caroline Knorr

As Common Sense Media's parenting editor, Caroline helps parents make sense of what’s going on in their kids' media lives. From games to cell phones to movies and more, if you're wondering "what’s the right age for... Read more

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Comments (10)

I feel people should stop spreading the negative stereotypes and look for more positive and not average ones in today's media more than ever especially if those same sterotypes are passed on to the kids.
I think sterotypes as this person judging another person because he/she is different. But we are the same but have different looks that makes us natural of who we are. Thank you Martin Luther King Jr. for getting us together to make peace!
Sometimes we may not realize it, but stereotypes are all around us in the media. And for parents looking for great role models for their kids to follow, it can be a challenge. Try to find a movie that shows a character that is not your average stereotype, like Tangled! But parents, while looking for great media for your kids, allow them to find out which role models suits them. It's important to allow your kids to explore the world around them a little.
I have been subject to bullying because of my blonde hair and pretty face. Boys sometimes call out to me "Hey blondwad! What's 2+2?" and I say "4, you dingalings!" Then they say "I'm impressed! Blondes usually can't count to five! Can you count to five, blond wad?" The jokes on them because the boys who tease me are in fact blonde. I brush it off, but even my friends stereotype me and I find it offensive and infuriating.
I totally hate that "all blondes are dumb" stereotype! That's horrible what they say to you! Give the leader of the bullies a big slap on the face next time they do that to you and they'll learn!
Or, you can just let your child explore the world on their own. I don't remember my parent's ever sitting me down for a talk about race. As long as your own behavior leaves a good model for your children, I'm sure they'll be fine.