Tips for Battling Stereotypes

Help your kids identify and see through media generalizations. By Caroline Knorr
Tips for Battling Stereotypes

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.

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.

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.
  • Discuss social media. Flag negative stereotypes reinforced in social media -- such as when certain groups are targeted for their gender or race -- and make sure your kids understand not to perpetuate them in their own social networks.
  • 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, Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish 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.

About Caroline Knorr

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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
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?

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Comments (13)

Adult written by Shelley H.

I have passionate opinions on this topic. I am from an extremely small town. I never had an opportunity for diversity. I am going to be completely honest here. I feel that it is in ALL of our nature's to stereotype and to be stereotyped. But we must know that and FIGHT AGAINST IT even within our own self. Recently we have a new member to our family. I have been summing him up from afar. I can tell you many things about him. But I really want to know him in a special way. I want to know the real real deal. I am a protective type person. It can be a good thing but it can be a negative for me as well. I was having a conversation about him with this dear relative. This relative is flat out prejudice. Oh my Lord, I was so pissed. Honestly you would have thought he was my own son, that I gave birth too. I hate PREJUDICE. Hate it. OK so what is it. One person is better than another person solely because of the color of their skin. No that is not okay with me That is shameful. If you honestly believe that then you need help. Back to my close dear relative, you know you do not get to be my age and not know the deal. We know the members of our family. We know how they think, and how they treat people. So I was prepared going in. But they also know me so I figured I was safe on this. But no he wants to try me. Sometimes unfortunately some people can only understand stupid You have to get stupid with stupid. Some people can not understand a clear message of right and wrong. We were not born prejudice We were taught it. You have to recognize that you were taught wrong. It is called USING YOUR OWN BRAIN. It is honestly that simple. We are all stereotyped. We want to just put people in a little box and that's where they fit. Absolute lies. Actually if people are brutally honest with themselves they can even tell you what box they are in. Quick story. I am stereotyped within my own family. My family expect a certain person to show up. In all honesty, that person has been gone for a seriously long time. That person was a young girl that had more on her plate then they even knew about. But there are some members of my family that if I am around I will go back in time or something and behave in the way they expect. In reality, thats not me. In truth I am hurting badly deep in my heart around them and I am afraid to show them my pain because I feel like they will enjoy hurting me deeper. I portray a person that doesn't exist anymore for fear of being hurt more. So not only do I know the stereotype they have me in, I can actually play that part for them. But it solves nothing. Just brings more pain for all of us. I wish I could say I love you guys. I miss you so very very very much. I am alone in this world. My heart is crying loudly all the time. I need you. All of you. Every single one of you. I mean I truly love you. But I can not do it. It's like trying to walk with a broken back. My heart is broke and I feel like if they see weakness I may not make it out alive. That is all a stereotype does is hurt people. I know we are all guilty at some point in our life. All it takes is to recognize it within yourself. Do not allow yourself to be that way. Recognize it quietly within yourself and fix it. We were all taught wrong on stereotyping fellow human beings.
Adult written by Senser123

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.
Kid, 12 years old

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!
Adult written by Senser123

I believe You are right about the stereotypes thing We really are all different but the same on the inside more so than on the outside.
Adult written by JEDI micah

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.
Kid, 10 years old

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.
Teen, 16 years old written by Maddie L.

Well maybe tell them that not all blonde girls are snotty airheads, and that I've known lots of blonds in my numerous schools, and they are actually very smart and nice, even more than me, and I'm brunette. Plus, in one of my favorite shows, Suite Life, the main girl protagonist is brunette and actually quite dumb, but her best friend who's blonde is also the most smartest girls around. So don't worry about those dumb, mean boys and just be you, blonde, smart, nice, and all! Oh, plus some parents on here are overreacting about everything on the media, I mean everyone knows it's all fake. For example, the violence has special effects, and the guns aren't even real or loaded. Plus, keep in mind that the stereotypes are part of actors and actresses rolee to play, they aren't even like the stereotypes in real life. Take Rachel McAdams, she played a mean girl in the movie Mean Girls, and she isn't even mean in real life - she's now an adult, and always been nice.
Adult written by num1snook

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!
Teen, 15 years old written by nomadicjellyfish

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.