SOUTH PORTLAND — Recent news stories regarding men who have been accused of sexual abuse and harassment have drawn our attention to a problem that is both individual and societal in nature. Because the men involved have been highly public figures in the world of politics and entertainment, we have, for the most part, focused our attention on the newly identified perpetrators, while mostly ignoring what has been occurring within our society over the past 50 years or more.

With help from the media, gender role stereotyping has allowed for the imbalance of power between men and women to reach into even the earliest experiences of our children. Parents and educators who have been aware of this growing problem have tried to reach out and sound the alarm, but often their voices are drowned out by mainstream media and corporate marketers of everything from children’s clothing to toys, books, sports equipment and more.

When I tell my students that when my son was born in 1979, the nursery in his hospital placed a pink or a blue name card on each bassinet, some are surprised, some are amused and some say, “What’s the big deal?” The deal is, we have been setting our children up for conformity with outdated, outmoded and downright dangerous stereotypes from the first day of life for decades now, and unless we begin to address the deep-seated bias and discrimination found within these stereotypes, we will continue to raise boys who harass and girls who are often shamed into silence.

There is no doubt that we need to hold accountable the current crop of abusers and harassers. As ugly as these accounts are – and the list is growing daily – we also need to start talking about how we become more self-aware as parents, educators and policymakers and how there needs to be a fundamental shift in our country about the messages that we send to our children around the value and worth of every individual, starting from birth.

This means that we must start conversations with our children about everything from the clothes, books and toys we purchase for and with them, to equality of the sexes and how respect for one another is fundamental. It’s no easy job to raise children to be critical consumers in a society that continually aims products at them that promote outdated, biased and sometimes dangerous gender stereotypes. And as adults, we need to become more active in informing other parents, educators and legislators about products and practices that are potentially harmful and promote notions like “boys will be boys.”

Take a look at toys, for instance. The release in 1992 of a “Talking Barbie” doll that uttered phrases like “Math class is tough” and “Let’s go to the mall” when a string was pulled was bad enough. Now, internet-connected toys like the talking doll My Friend Cayla listen to every word your child says – creating troves of personal data that could be sold to advertisers and marketers. (Google has patents on similar products.) Germany has already banned My Friend Cayla and children’s smart watches from stores.


According to leaked internal Facebook documents, the social media platform has been gathering information on insecure and “vulnerable” teenagers to enable advertisers to exploit them. Corporate America clearly has an accounting to do on their misguided targeting of young people.

The recently released movie “The Florida Project,” the story of a child and her mother who live in a rundown motel right outside Disney World, is at once a wonderful celebration of childhood and a condemnation of the “Disneyficaton” of America. Starkly portraying the effects of childhood poverty, it also reveals what this unabashed consumerism has done to the American Dream.

We must take a look at what kinds of experiences we craft for our children, and if the values that underly those experiences really reflect what we want our children to become – princesses and pirates or responsible political and social leaders. The choice is ours.

Parents raised men like Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Al Franken and Charlie Rose. The women they have abused and humiliated have stood in the shadows for too long, and are now being empowered to speak out. Parents of today’s children – boys and girls alike – have an opportunity to craft a new generation of leaders, thinkers, actors, sports figures and everday workers who truly believe and act on the premise that all men and women are created equal and deserve equal opportunity and freedom.


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