Girls go to college to get more knowledge / Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider. My 10-year-old daughter belted out these words one evening this summer during a game of backyard volleyball. As the sing-songy rhythm floated in the twilight, I found myself smiling—at her enthusiasm, at the simplicity of childhood, and at the memories her little ditty conjured up.

In many ways, her song was also apropos to the moment. After all, we had teamed up boys vs. girls, with Daddy and brothers facing off against Mommy and sister. It was a classic battle of the sexes, a Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs kind of moment. I really was more amused than upset when I heard it, but when I asked her where she’d learned it, she replied, “At school.”

Those of us who spent any time on an elementary school playground probably learned similar rhymes. And if you don’t remember them, all you need to do is walk through the children’s department of any retail store to catch up.

Only days before my daughter’s serenade, I saw a notebook in Target’s back-to-school catalog emblazoned with the words, “Girls Rule. Boys Drool. Any Questions?”

It’s easy to pass off such phrases as the natural prevue of childhood. After all, who among us didn’t enjoy a good came of “cooties” in second grade? At the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d feel if the genders had been reversed—If the notebook had read, “Boys Rule. Girls Drool. Any Questions?” In a day when companies are increasingly aware of the power of the messages we send women and girls, why don’t we believe that messages like this one are equally powerful?

Much ado about nothing?

To be fair, the differences between men and women are a time-tested source of comedy. Whether it’s the playful banter between Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing or the recent off-the-cuff remark by the First Lady that “women are smarter than men,” we use humor as a way to make sense of the differences between us. We joke about men’s inability to multi-task or their resistance to asking for directions. And men laugh about women’s talkativeness and their obsession with whether or not they look fat.

As harmless as it is to poke fun at the idiosyncrasies of gender, the problem comes when we allow the differences between classes to overtake the individual or when the attributes we assign are downright false. (Case in point: boys do NOT go to Jupiter to get more stupider.) While we adults may be able to sort through false messages, children can’t always do this as easily—especially when adults seem to be affirming and promoting them.

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Consider the notebook I saw in the Target catalog, the one that read “Girls Rule. Boys Drool.” It was designed by adults, manufactured by adults, marketed by adults, sold by adults, and in all likelihood, will be bought by an adult for a child. Suddenly, it is no longer the product of the natural tension between boys and girls on a playground. It is a message sanctioned by the authority. It would be as if a teacher heard her students chanting, “Girls go to college to get more knowledge…” and suddenly decided to join in herself. Or worse, after hearing it, she ran to the supply room, grabbed poster board and a broad-tipped marker, and proceeded to make a placard.

When a child hears sexist messages from other children, she receives them with the authority that the other children possess, which in most cases, is next to nil. But when adults affirm such messages—when we are the ones offering the message—we teach her that this is a legitimate way to frame the differences between men and women.

Communicating as image bearers

Part of the reason adults excuse messages like “Girls Rule. Boys Drool.” is the simple fact that we don’t view them as harmful. Perhaps we believe that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Or maybe we believe that girls, as an underprivileged class, simply can’t harm boys. After all, it’s girls around the world, not boys, who face greater threats to their health and safety. But if we believe that an oppressed class cannot harm a privileged class—if we allow class distinctions to guide personal interaction—we will develop a double standard for sexist language. What we would never condone in a boy becomes a “joke” when offered by a girl.

Instead, we must realize that demeaning language harms the imago dei of both the one who speaks the message and the one to whom the message is directed. When we sanction messages like “Girls Rule. Boys Drool.” we affirm a false message about what it means to be made in God’s image. And when we undermine the truth of what it means to be made in God’s image, we undermine the ability of all of us, male and female alike, to live in that truth.

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The Apostle James reminds us of the relationship between what we say and how it relates to being image bearers when he writes,

No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God… Does a spring pour forth form the same opening both fresh and salt water?

In essence, when our words belittle those who bear God’s image, it reveals that we ourselves are not bearing his image the way we should. We are not reflecting him because we are not doing what he himself has done—extending honor and grace to those made in his likeness.

As children head back to school (and recess) this month, they will inevitably face sexist messages. Some will be of their own making and some will be the result of a society that struggles to understand how men and women should relate. As adults, we have the choice to either promote those false messages or to use them as an opportunity to teach children a better way.

Instead of capitulating to cultural norms (i.e. don’t buy that notebook for your daughter), we must offer children a holistic vision of how men and women (and boys and girls) share God’s image. We must teach to them to live in dependent union as brothers and sisters, to develop healthy friendships, and to see the neighboring sex, not as an enemy, but as an ally for life.

And if we can do this, it will definitely be worth singing about.

Hannah Anderson is a freelance writer, blogger, and author of the book, Made for More: An Invitation to Live Imago Dei (Moody, April 2014). She lives with her husband and three children in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. You can connect with her at her blog on Twitter @sometimesalight.