According to some researchers, by the age of three, girls get the message that they are in a lifelong beauty contest, with men and boys as the judges.
By age ten, girls get the idea that making good grades, being competitive and strong in sports, and being strong-willed and self-assured are not as important as being sweet, passive, and quieter than boys. Teachers, friends, relatives, pop music, televisions—and even the church folks—reinforce these messages.
The truth is, however, that God calls us all to be our personal best and to use the gifts we are given. That means girls as well as boys should celebrate their strong bodies, keen minds, spiritual gifts, communication skills, and the fact that God loves them just as they are.
It is never too early to counter the gender stereotypes and sexist messages that often permeate our institutions—including the church. Galatians 3:28 is clear: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Does your congregation practice what we preach about girls and boys being equally beloved, gifted, and called by Christ? Are girls used as ushers, liturgists, acolytes, and readers during worship? Are boys praised for their kitchen skills? Are male and female biblical heroes celebrated in Sunday school classes for children and teens?
To create a more girl-friendly congregation—and to nurture boys who respect girls (and themselves) as equally valuable to and gifted by God—consider the following ideas:
- Begin early to nurture freedom from stereotyped expectations. Teach boys and girls to cook and bake and help in the kitchen. Allow boys and girls to help clean up around the churchyard, raking leaves and caring for the lawn and planting flowers. In worship, invite girls and boys to be readers or ushers during worship, or to be members of the choir.
- Watch and listen to girls for early signs of leadership. By age seven, I knew I wanted to pursue lay ministry, and I was encouraged by a Christian educator who urged me to read Scripture and make special presentations during worship. Encourage adolescent girls to serve as liturgists and leaders on church committees. And share information with girls and boys about opportunities for various kinds of ministry.
- Monitor storybooks, Sunday school curriculum, and sermon illustrations for gender bias and stereotypes. Some things to consider: Are the heroes or bosses in the story always boys or men? Are men and boys portrayed as strong, brave, competitive, rough, messy, and incompetent at housework? Are girls and women portrayed as frightened, quiet, passive, neat, obedient, and good at housework and minding children? If so, look for material (or modify existing material) for more balance.
- Include antisexism (and antiracism) training in your orientation for Sunday school teachers and children/youth leaders.
- Open church sports teams to boys and girls, men and women. Consider joining coed softball and other leagues that allow males and females to play and compete together.
- Expose girls and boys to women in leadership. Invite a clergywoman to preach, or take your youth group to visit a church where a woman is the senior pastor. Invite laywomen and clergywomen from your area in parish nursing, financial stewardship, Christian education, etc., to speak to children in your church about their ministries.
- Invite men who are married to prominent women in your community to talk to your youth group about their experiences, specifically what they’ve learned about gender roles: how they share housework, why it is important for married partners to be mutually supportive of one another.
- Provide toys and games that reflect the full range of children’s play. Don’t discourage a boy from playing with dolls, or take a toy dump truck away from a girl. Gently correct children who try to push others into stereotypical play against their will. It’s never too early to counter sexism.
Do NOT comment negatively about a child’s physical appearance. Girls especially receive enough negative messages from media, peers, and maybe even parents about their weight, hair, clothing, etc. And such criticism is often used to put smart girls and strong girls “in their place.” I remember clearly one of my mom’s friends, exasperated by my mom’s constant bragging about how smart I was, telling my mother, “Yes, she is smart, but her hair is a mess. She’ll never get a boyfriend with that hair.” Even at age eleven, I knew from her comment that good grades were not as important as being physically attractive to boys. It took me years to stop playing those tapes in my head. Praise children’s initiative, accomplishments, helping skills, kindness, curiosity, etc. And if you have to say something about physical appearance, say, “You look great!” or “Your smile is so wonderful.”
Parents, gently counter negative, stereotyped statements that your friends and relatives make about your child’s physical appearance or interests, particularly if they make those comments in front of your child. Your support is critical to your child’s sense of well-being and self-esteem. If someone says, “Beth would be so cute if she’d only lose twenty pounds”; respond immediately with, “I think my daughter looks great! She’s making good grades and is the most wonderful child I could ask for.” Or if they say, “David spends too much time in the kitchen with you. He needs to do more boyish things”; say firmly, “He loves to cook, and I think men should know their way around a kitchen, so I encourage him!”
Encourage boys’ development of nurturing and caring attributes. Girls aren’t the only ones who can nurture and mentor younger children. Shaun, a teenage boy in my church, is very caring of small children. My five-year-old granddaughter loves for him to push her in the swing. He and his girlfriend want to have six kids when they marry (after college). She says, “Fine,” as long as Shaun agrees to be primary caregiver. Change your language to make it more inclusive. Fireman and clergyman imply that these are men-only jobs. Firefighter and pastor are more accurate descriptions and take into consideration that there are women doing those jobs. Say humankind, humanity, layperson, chairperson, etc.
Make sure women and men are assigned to a variety of jobs in your church leadership. For example, recruit women and men in teams to teach Sunday school classes for children and youth. Assign women and men as trustees, nursery workers, choir members, liturgists, Communion helpers, ushers, the altar-and-flower guild, the kitchen committee, etc.
Do not offer beauty and makeup retreats, rap sessions on “finding a boyfriend," or weight-control classes for girls. An exercise class for both genders is okay; so is a class where girls and boys can talk about dating, health issues, and/or other life lessons in a Christian context. But reinforcing the notion that a girl’s primary life pursuit is finding a husband is not what church is supposed to be about.
Church is the place where values, character, spiritual gifts and talents, intellect, compassion, and Christian discipleship should be affirmed.