TV, movies, videogames and the Internet often show people in an overly simple way, giving an inaccurate idea of what they are allowed to say and do and how important or unimportant they are. This often takes the form of stereotypes — recognizable but inaccurate views of one group of people by another. Some common stereotypes show women as weak and certain ethnic groups as lazy or scheming. Challenge your child to question what she sees and hears, so she develops an eye for sexism, racism and other prejudices in mainstream media portrayals.
Ideally, your child will come to realize that images on TV or in movies are not reality. Instead, they are the result of a producer's, a writer's or an actor's point of view. Whenever possible, encourage your child to question limiting views of people and cultures by looking for more information.
Be on the lookout for media that uses accents or skin colors to connect negative behavior with a certain cultural group. Are some cultures made out to be dumb? Unimportant? Aggressive? What does this reveal about our attitudes toward a given culture?
Point out differences in the ways males and females are shown in media. Ask why men are often the heroes, whereas women frequently play less important roles. What does it mean to "act like a man?" To "behave like a lady?" Who makes these decisions in each program? How do you think they make them?
Use TV and movie characters to help your child see that not only the young are capable and not only the old are wise. Teach your child that elderly people are not always feeble or easily duped.
Find out what comparisons your child is making between his appearance or actions and those of a character. Talk to him about the difference between feeling good about himself and feeling superior to others. Encourage him to take pictures or write stories that express his individuality.
Ask librarians, media specialists, friends and your family to recommend books, TV shows, videos and software programs that feature a variety of cultures or present men and women in nontraditional roles. Also seek out stories that show a wide range of body types, personal traits and talents.
Your child may not realize how much work hair stylists, make-up artists, clothing designers and personal trainers do to make one person look like a star. She also may not know how easy it is to manipulate images to make models and actors look much better on the page or the screen than they do in person. Break the spell of TV shows and advertising by suggesting what goes on behind the scenes.
By pointing out negative portrayals based on race, gender or ability, you teach your child not to accept inequity. He will begin to appreciate that characters don't have to be portrayed in a narrow way, and that many behaviors and roles have value. If possible, point out when representations of certain cultures or people are missing.