Being told that girls are weak and soft and that boys are aggressive and unemotional is about as played out as the Macarena and Harlem Shake. Yet, it still happens often in our society.

We've all witnessed gender stereotyping in our daily lives, but what impact does it have on our children?

A big one.


Studies show that stereotypes can significantly limit a child's full potential and happiness by ignoring who they truly are in order to "fit in" to what society expects of them.

The world can be a confusing place for our children at times. Image via iStock.

But there is some good news, and it comes in the form of toys, which are scientifically proven to help kids learn.

Here's the story behind four cool toy companies you may not have heard of that are shattering stereotypes and helping kids believe they can be anything they want to be.

1. For mom and psychotherapist Laurel Wider, it all started when she heard her son say boys aren't supposed to cry.

The market is full of toys that encourage little girls to express empathy and emotions, but what about the boys? Wider felt she had to do her part to help little boys embrace their sensitive sides.

Enter Wonder Crew. Each 15-inch doll combines the adventure of an action figure with the emotional connection of a stuffed animal. Guess what? Little boys love them.

Boys can be nurturing, too. Photo from Wonder Crew, used with permission.

"Wonder Crew is a part of a new conversation about boys' potential and how feelings and connection are a valued piece of their identity," Wider told Upworthy. "I wanted to create a play experience that empowers them to go anywhere and be anything."

Even if that means being a chef or a superhero.

2. When Alice Brooks was 8 years old, she asked her dad for a doll for Christmas and received a saw instead.

She used that saw to build her own doll out of wood and nails — and 10 years later, she went on to study mechanical engineering at MIT and Stanford.

That's what led Brooks to create Roominate, a line of building sets designed for girls in order to bridge the gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Once her company received funding on the hit TV show "Shark Tank," the rest was history.

News flash: Girls like to build stuff, too. Photo from Roominate, used with permission.

"I was lucky that I found my passion at such a young age, but so many girls never think about engineering as an option for them," Brooks told Upworthy. "I believe we need to give girls more options so they can find what truly interests them."

3. Julie Kerwin is a woman who loves superheroes, but she wasn't digging what was out there — especially for little girls.

"Many female action figures tend to be more hooters than heroine," Kerwin told Upworthy.

Her company IAmElemental aims to reinvent the superhero game by creating female action figures that are focused more on powers than looks. She believes that opens up a whole new form of play for little girls.

Meet the badass female superheroes from IAmElemental. Photo from IAmElemental, used with permission.

"By making females the protagonists of their own empowering stories, you can change the way they think about themselves and the world around them," Kerwin told Upworthy.

As a mom of two sons, Kerwin is also quick to point out that IAmElemental is "girl targeted, boy inclusive." That's because she understands the value of teaching boys to see (and play with) strong female action figures.

"We cannot move towards gender equality if we don't teach boys what it means to be a powerful woman," she said.

4. Jodi Norgaard never wanted to go into the toy business, but she took matters into her own hands for the sake of her young daughter.

That's when she created a line of plush sports-themed dolls for girls called Go! Go! Sports Girls to help encourage healthy and active play.

That's not to say that there's anything wrong with fashion and princesses, of course. It's just that Norgaard wanted to give girls more options than what was available.

Girls really dig these dolls. Photo from Go! Go! Sports Girls, used with permission.

"Girls are strong, smart, and adventurous — but instead, many toys geared towards them are focused on how they should look," Norgaard told Upworthy. "Girls love sports and we need more representation of that."

Because in today's world, the word "beautiful" has many definitions.

In order to truly make the world a happier place, we should teach our kids that they can be whatever they want to be — without limitations.

Thankfully, many of the larger companies are getting the memo as well. For example, Lego, usually known as a toy for boys, recently introduced Lego Friends, and little girls love them.

Even though more work needs to be done to change gender stereotypes, it's nice to know that we're heading in the right direction.

So when little Susie says she wants to be a computer programmer when she grows up while little Johnny says he wants to be a nurse, we should just smile and say, "Go for it."

Courtesy of Elaine Ahn

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Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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