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Modern Parenthood

Kids on the margins need unpacking of societal norms

Kids on the margins have long had to deal with societal pressures and the need to conform to certain norms. But a recent focus on bullying and gender norms is a reminder that society needs to do a better job of recognizing and responding to such pressures.

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In her latest TED Talk, social work research professor Brene Brown at the University of Houston cites the work of psychologist James Mahalik at Boston College: “What do women need to do to conform to female norms?” she rhetorically asks her audience? Mahalik found that, in the US, the top answers were “be nice, thin, modest, and use all available resources for appearance,” she says. “When he asked what men in this country need to do to conform with male norms, the answers were ‘always show emotional control, put work first, pursue status, and violence’.”

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Guest Blogger

Anne Collier is editor of and co-director of, a Web-based interactive forum and information site for teens, parents, educators, and everybody interested in the impact of the social Web on youth and vice versa. She lives in Northern California and has two sons.

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Those survey responses certainly gave me pause. Think about these gender norms in the context of youth bullying prevention, whether psychological or physical. Violence is normative in males, we see. “Use all available resources for appearance” is normative in females.

Hmm. Bringing these norms out into the light may help….

  •  It may help us see that violence, vying for status, and striving for appearance ideals are far from “just kid stuff”
  •  It may help us ease the burden on schools and parents just a little, and
  •  It may help us stop wasting time on blame games and start focusing on solutions to social aggression, such as social-emotional learning, the lion’s share of bullying prevention. SEL, or simply social literacy, teaches us to detect and manage our feelings so that we’re able to interact more harmoniously and effectively.

The Youth Voice Project, which surveyed more than 13,000 students in grades 5-12 at 31 schools around the country, seems to bear out the appearance piece (it doesn’t distinguish between genders in its results). The Project also shows that marginalization at school echoes marginalization of all kinds at the societal level. It found that 55% of kids who’d experienced moderate-to-very-severe mistreatment cited “looks” as the focus of mistreatment and 37% “body shape.”


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