As told to THINK editor Meredith Bennett-Smith, edited and condensed for clarity.
One day my son watched his father lifting something really heavy. He turned to me and said, "Mom, Dad is like Wonder Woman." In that moment I was really proud. As a parent, I’m trying very hard to reject traditional messaging of gender roles. If my son equates his dad’s strength with Wonder Woman, I am given hope; hope that he never develops the artificial mental barriers — so prevalent in our society — that limit what women can and can’t do.
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Adults too often forget the power of messaging. Kids today are still being told: If you're a boy, you're more powerful, you are stronger and if you're a girl, you are the nurturer and you're less powerful. I don't know specifically where it's coming from. But I do think there's still a lot of content out there that supports those sorts of ideas. It’s in the stories that we tell our children and that our children learn from pop culture.
As a parent, I’m trying very hard to reject traditional messaging of gender roles. If my son equates his dad’s strength with Wonder Woman, I am given hope.
Concepts of gender and gender discrimination don’t just challenge adults. My son is 4 and I’ve noticed it has crept into his mind; despite his Wonder Woman comment, he has said things like, "Well, I should get the blue cup and my sister should get the pink cup,” and, "My skateboard is blue and hers has to be pink.”
I encourage my daughter to embrace her love of Spiderman and the blue Power Ranger instead of the pink Power Ranger, etc. This doesn't mean that I prevent her from playing with her collection of baby dolls, which she loves very much. But I do really try to make sure that neither of my kids put themselves into binary categories. I think that's a parent's job, and it’s something I wasn’t as keenly aware of before I had kids.
So how do we prevent our children from falling into oversimplified brackets, brackets that are really just created for marketing purposes? There’s no right answer. But something as simple as telling a 2-year-old a story from “Thomas the Tank Engine” that encourages them to consider gender equality can lay a foundation that will affect the way that they process societal pressures for years to come. Toy companies have a role they can play here. For example, Mattel, which has a massive global reach, is partnering with the United Nations to try and push some of the UN’s sustainable development goals through its toys. That will lay the groundwork in a child's imagination. If we can raise an entire generation with values like that, then we can really move the needle in a lot of areas.
Feminism for me boils down to equality. Many adults have an incorrect definition of feminism, which is one of the reasons so many people still resist it.
Take feminism. Feminism for me boils down to equality. Many adults have an incorrect definition of feminism, which is one of the reasons so many people still resist it. But the good news is that I think kids actually understand this concept better than some adults. They understand these ideas about fairness and equality deeply because they haven't been influenced yet with ideas of inequality. We need to encourage this, and cultivate their natural instincts.
I feel a great sense of urgency, particularly when you look at what's happening politically in this country, to make sure that our children don’t grow up to make some of the mistakes we have made. I worry that we haven't done a good enough job with early childhood education. But maybe if we can change the way that we raise children and change the stories we tell them, we won't find ourselves in future disasters — like the situation we're in now. If you think about it, there’s a lot of opportunity there, especially for parents, because we are on the front lines every day.
We have the power to shape the coming generations. But to do this, we have to make sure that the ideas and social cues they are observing and absorbing enforce concepts like equality and empathy, not outdated stereotypes. I want my son and daughter to grow up thinking girls can be Batman and boys can be Wonder Woman and that gender equality isn’t controversial or political — it’s just common sense.
As a mom and activist, Olivia Wilde supports the partnership between the United Nations and the producers of the "Thomas & Friends" TV show to integrate elements of the U.N. sustainable development goals into Thomas & Friends storytelling.