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15 January 2016

Parenting as a Sociologist: "Big Girl" vs. "Big Kid"

As I have noted before, I am a new parent. My daughter is now a bit over 18 months old--and she's wonderful! As she is becoming more verbal, though, my wife and I are now starting actively to think about the language we use around her. One place where we work is to avoid the fallback compliment that she is "a pretty girl." We do indeed want her to have a healthy self-concept; we just don't want her self-concept to be tied up in her attractiveness, to think of herself as an object. Instead, I try to compliment her intelligence, physical ability, and happiness whenever possible. A second issue, however, is more contested between my wife and me: whether to say "big girl." My argument against it stems from an article that I first read in grad school and still assign when I teach undergraduate social psychology.[1] Here is the relevant section from that piece:
…[A]dults commonly associate behavioral standards of social maturity with sex identification in an attempt to control children’s behavior, as when a preschool aide lectured a 38-month-old girl who had struck another child: "You're a big girl. You don't need to hit." While a sex-neutral expression such as "big kid" could conceivably be used in these ways, adults seldom do so.
In short, the language of social identification which adults employ when interacting with young children conveys to them that "bigness" is associated with sex identification, that social maturity is directly associated with "boyness" and "girlness." By implication, therefore, adults' language practices serve to implicitly instruct children that "boy" and "girl" are alternative identities to that of "baby," identifying categories from the same membership categorization device. It appears that as far as adults are concerned "babies" do not mature into "big kids" but into "big girls" and "big boys." Clearly…our society is populated not by persons, per se, but by sexed persons (302).
In short, the practical necessity of claiming positive social value and the constraints which languages of social identification impose on individuals' efforts to do so may have a profound influence on both their definitions of self and their behavior. In a sense, therefore, identifying categorical terms do motivate behavior (308).
It is surprisingly difficult to avoid saying "big girl." I have been thoroughly socialized to feel it as "natural." It come out of my mouth without me consciously thinking about it, which makes it very difficult to avoid. I'm working on it, though. That is my bigger point: it is one thing to sociologize in a classroom, on a blog, in a research report, or at an academic conference, but putting such ideas into practice is decidedly difficult, even for a person highly trained in the discipline with an intellectually sympathetic spouse.

[1] Cahill, Spencer E. 1986. "Language Practices and Self Definition: The Case of Gender Identity Acquisition." The Sociological Quarterly 27(3):295–311.

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