For many parents, reading to our kids is one of the most joyful (and least exhausting) parts of our day. Reading books lets us launch conversations, share new ideas, and fuel our kids’ imagination. But children’s books are even more powerful than we might realize. Children’s books can also disrupt the formation of harmful gender role stereotypes, which can help free our kids to forge their own paths, be more accepting of others, and create a more equitable world.
Why are children’s books so powerful? It’s because they reach children at the same time that their brains are being encoded with powerful messaging about gender roles. Kids start recognizing gender categories and labels before age two. But it’s during the critical period of ages three to five when they start engraining societal expectations about what’s purportedly “appropriate” for male versus female appearance, traits, interests, aptitudes, and even careers.
It’s during this time that kids start perceiving specific toys and activities as gendered, and even worse, when they start policing other kids for deviating from those societal expectations. Kids of this age start viewing dollhouses as “girls’ toys” and soldiers as “boys’ toys,” for example, and they begin ridiculing other kids for playing with items that they perceive as not “matching” their gender.
It’s also during this time that kids start linking skills and jobs to one gender or the other. If asked to draw “a scientist” or “someone who is good at math,” for example, both boys and girls are more likely to draw a man than a woman. Even more disheartening is that by around age six to seven, kids begin translating their gendered job notions into a status hierarchy: viewing male-typed jobs, such as a pilot or engineer, as more important and prestigious than female-typed jobs, such as a nurse or teacher.
Among the most powerful of these societally-engrained gender role stereotypes is the notion that women are caregivers and men are not. This stereotype can lead girls to limit their career aspirations, push men to prioritize career over family, and prevent both men and women from achieving sustainable work/family balance. But children’s books can disrupt the encoding of these restrictive gender role norms before they take root. That’s because children’s books can allow kids to envision a more empowering narrative that lets everyone be their authentic selves.
As a working-mom law professor who studies gender equality, my initial reaction to this research on the formation of gender role stereotypes was to start promoting children’s books that celebrate women for the work we do outside the home—i.e. kids’ books that show women as more than just caregivers. That’s why I wrote my own children’s book titled, My Mom Has Two Jobs, which highlights moms in many professional roles, including lawyers, engineers, pilots, military sergeants, doctors, veterinarians, and firefighters.
In talking with my male friends and colleagues, however, I realized that many of them feel similarly devalued by the absence of children’s books that highlight men for the important work they do inside the home. The stereotype of men as breadwinners has real consequences, including making it difficult for men to take family leave, to show genuine emotion, and to be the fully engaged dads that they want to be. So it’s important to disrupt both sides of the gender-role stereotype coin—in other words, we also need our kids to see men as the deeply caring dads that they are and aspire to be. To get you started on this important endeavor (and to give you terrific gift ideas for new dads and dads-to-be), here is my list of the Top 5 Children’s Books that Celebrate Men as Caregivers.
1. Some Daddies, authored by Carol Gordon Ekster and illustrated by Javiera Mac-lean Álvarez.
This book showcases the everyday role that dads play in supporting their kids through love, laughter, and learning. It embraces the diversity of modern fatherhood, including dads of different races and nationalities, as well as a single dad, a stay-at-home dad, and a two-dad family.
2. No Limits, authored by Ashley Finley and illustrated by Agia Putri.
This book shares the journey of a child from infancy to young adulthood as viewed through the eyes of a devoted father. It beautifully conveys dads’ unconditional love and affirming support of their children at every age.
3. Hair Love, authored by Matthew A. Cherry and illustrated by Vashti Harrison.
This book reveals the special bond that dads can build with their kids even while tackling mundane parenting tasks. It’s a sweet and caring story of a dad’s total commitment to learning how to make his daughter happy by caring for her gorgeous curls. This book will empower men to lean into their nurturing skills, while showing kids that dads are talented caregivers too.
4. The Daddy Book, authored and illustrated by Todd Parr.
This book is a perfect way to remind your youngest listeners about all the ways that dads show their love. While promoting multiculturalism and showcasing the uniqueness of each individual dad, the book also highlights the love and care that all dads share in common.
5. Made For Me, authored by Zack Bush and illustrated by Gregorio De Lauretis.
Written by a dad for other dads, this book shares the profoundly life-changing impact of becoming a father. Its tender, heartfelt, and joyful expression of a father’s awe is the perfect celebration of men as caregivers.
Michelle Travis is a Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco School of Law and a Director of the nonprofit Fathering Together. She is the author of Dads for Daughters, a guide to male allyship for gender equity, and an award-winning children’s picture book, My Mom Has Two Jobs, which celebrates working moms.