Language lessons

“Look at the firemen!” a father says to his son, pointing toward a parking lot, where our local fire station is having an open house. 

Sirens blare and children squeal as they climb colossal trucks and hoist heavy turnout gear onto their tiny bodies.

The man’s son, maybe 4 years old, leaps into the air.

“I wanna see the firemen!” He shouts. “Hurry, hurry!” 

The boy grabs his father’s hand and drags him toward the commotion.

Firewhat?

The firefighters are conducting a training exercise on one of the trucks. They’re indistinguishable from one another, dressed head-to-toe in uniform, including full face helmets. 

I watch one of them approach the boy, who is jumping vigorously in place, his eyes eager and wide.

The firefighter kneels down and removes the helmet to reveal a cascade of long brown hair and a feminine face. 

“Well, hello there,” she says.

The boy stops jumping. He tilts his head and squints, confused. 

“But … you’re a woman.”

The woman’s body jerks at the unexpected response. She quickly regains composure and holds out her hand. 

“Of course I’m a woman,” she says, her voice kind and forgiving.

The boy takes her hand, still cautious.

“A firewoman?” he says.

She winks at him. “We just call ourselves firefighters,” she says.

For the boy, this seems to satisfy. His feet start twitching and his questions turn to trucks and sirens and how much water it takes to put out a fire.

Words matter

So, what’s the big deal? Fireman, firefighter. It’s all the same, right? 

Not necessarily.

Word choice, whether we realize it or not, profoundly affects our children’s perceptions of the world. 

In this case, I’m sure the father wasn’t intentionally implying that only men could fight fires. But this is the impression the son had, regardless of his father’s intentions. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the words “fireman,” “policeman” or “mailman.” 

But a 2009 study found that children don’t associate those kinds of titles with women. 

If the occupational titles we use in everyday language consistently exclude half the population, what happens when we innocently ask our daughters: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” 

They have to sift through their limited experience to produce an answer that fits. If they can’t identify with a particular job title, what long-term effects might that have?

Kid with a fire hat

Different opportunities

The Harvard Business Review recently analyzed the language used to describe men and women seeking funding for their businesses. They found unequivocal bias embedded in the language investors used to describe potential entrepreneurs. 

While young men were described as having “potential,” young women were described as “inexperienced.” Men were seen as “cautious, sensible and level-headed,” while women were “too cautious.” Men were “aggressive, but really good” while women were “enthusiastic, but weak.” Men were “competent” with “money to play with” while women were “good-looking and careless with money.” 

The result? Less funding for female entrepreneurs. 

“This isn’t only damaging for women entrepreneurs,” the authors of the study wrote. “It’s potentially damaging for society as a whole.”

Whether we like it or not, our word choice shapes the way we think about the world. And, in turn, affects the way our children see themselves in it. 

Pretty? Smart? 

From the boardroom to the bathroom to the clothes our kids wear, gender equity and even the concept of gender itself is a hot topic in today’s political climate. Sometimes it feels easier to throw our hands in the air and hope for the best when it comes to the way we talk to our kids.

But stereotypes abound and they create real consequences for our children, politics aside. 

The words we use can reinforce those stereotypes — or work to break them down. We don’t have to eliminate “pretty” or “smart” or even “fireman” from our vocabularies. But recognizing that our best intentions might not produce the desired results is a good place to start.

It’s not important to be perfect. That’s the beauty of parenthood: Sometimes kids learn more from watching us fumble through it than when we appear to have all the answers.

When we correct our language in front of our children or point out the gendered occupational titles so prevalent in storybooks, children learn that it’s OK to make mistakes; the important thing is to try. They also learn important critical-thinking skills.

Simply reframing the way we consider our words can make a huge impact on our kids. Society will try its hardest to fit them into boxes. Let’s create homes free from those limitations, where all our kids can be firefighters, police officers and mail carriers.


Amanda Webster is a writer and photographer. She lives in Roseville with her husband and two kids. Find her at amandawebsterwrites.com or kinderling.com.