Unlocking a Child’s Potential


Samantha Ettus focuses on human potential. In this provocative talk, she argues that going beyond pink and blue is essential to helping all children get from where they are today to what they could become tomorrow.

At a time when princess, pink and pretty are marketed more heavily than ever before, gender stereotypes have become even more prevalent.

Ettus passionately makes the case that it is only by removing gender bias from the home, the classroom, the toy stores and the media, that all children will have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

Reflect on your different treatment of boys and girls in the classroom and think about this impact. You’re probably not even aware that you are doing it.


Speaker 1 (00:16):

The world’s most extraordinary people have one thing in common. It’s not how much money they grew up with, or what school they went to, or how much they studied, or what they eat for breakfast. It is this, they each had a parent or grandparent or teacher or mentor or adult in their life who made them believe they could be absolutely anything. That with hard work, the sky is the limit. This is the same for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, or the best volleyball player in the world, Kerri Walsh Jennings, or primatologists Jane Goodall, or even inventor Thomas Edison. TV writer Shonda Rhimes said, “My father told me the only limit to my success was my own imagination, and my mother fixed, poked, and handled anyone who tried to make me feel this was untrue.”

Speaker 1 (01:21):

Now, this is great news for us as parents, we can make a whole host of mistakes. If we can get this one thing right, then we have launched our kids with the greatest chance for a bright future. Now, I was not only thrilled about this news as a mom, but I was thrilled because for years now, my work has focused on helping people reach their potential and getting from where they are today, to where they could be.

Speaker 1 (01:54):

Now, here was an answer in the form of a person. It’s you, it’s me, every single adult in this room is a champion of potential. As teachers you’re champions of potential, as parents you’re champions of potential. As grandparents, aunts, uncles, anyone who loves a child is a champion of potential. We all share this mission and this opportunity.

Speaker 1 (02:25):

So by a show of hands, let me ask you, who in this room is interested in helping a child reach their potential? See, you gave me an easy, yes, because it’s an easy mission to sign on to. But the sad thing is that we’re all in the middle of dramatically failing at it. The mistake comes in the form of two colors, pink and blue. As champions of potential, the universal mistake we are making is the gender stereotyping of boys and girls. This is not about a lack of awareness, it’s about a lack of progress in the face of marketing budgets that are growing for princesses pretty and pink. This problem is escalating. We do it in our homes. We do it in the classrooms. We do it in the media and we do it in the toy stores, and it has to stop.

Speaker 1 (03:26):

When my daughter was two, she received a fake vanity as a gift, complete with nail Polish and lipstick. Her best friend who was a boy received, a Lego. The message was clear, girls focus on beauty and boys focus on building. I tried to shield my daughter from this as much as possible. Couple years later when she was four, she said to me, “Mommy, why don’t you like princesses?” And as nonchalantly as I could, I answered, “I don’t dislike them, it’s just they don’t do much.” She said, “Yes, they do. They look in mirrors and they wait for princess to marry them.” She’d made my case better than I could have.

Speaker 1 (04:10):

In the early years, there was a lot of talk about diet. What was organic, how many grams of sugar? I tried to be cognizant of these things, but there was another diet that really concerned me, there’re media diets. Once they age out of the baby Einstein videos and shows like Blue’s Clues, I noticed that the media they were consuming, whether it was television or movies, or even books, was missing something, girls.

Speaker 1 (04:39):

The actress, Gina Davis began funding research on this and she found that just one in four speaking roles in children’s television or G-rated movies, was female. One in four. As a mom of two young girls and a young boy, I realized this problem would not be solved during their childhoods. So while I continued to monitor what they watched, I taught them to question what they saw. I taught them what stereotypes were. I taught them to look at how girls and boys were portrayed in the media. I taught them that until the 1940s, pink was actually a boys color. It’s true. Back then, pink was considered strong and blue was considered dainty.

Speaker 1 (05:27):

Here’s a photo of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States dressed as a young boy. He was probably wearing pink. Now, this is the man who led America through World War II and the Great Depression, but here he was. Back then the colors, the delineations between pink and blue weren’t as strong. It’s only in recent decades that they’ve become two firm teams, the pink team and the blue team. If you dress your baby girl in blue, everyone will think she’s a boy. If you dress your baby boy in pink, the looks you get will be even worse.

Speaker 1 (06:07):

All of this media training started to pay off. My son, my young son, and my two daughters began to notice stereotypes everywhere and they pointed them out to me. I realized they might’ve carried it a bit too far when last summer we were in a shoe store and I asked for a child size five and the sales person said, “A girl size five or a boy’s?” My four year old son turned to me and said, “Mommy, why does she stereotype?” I had to explain that to indeed shoes do come in girls’ and boy’s sizes.

Speaker 1 (06:39):

Next step was toy stores. With rare exceptions, when you walk into a toy store, you’ll be asked if the toy is for a girl or a boy. And if it’s for a girl, you will be directed to the art projects. If it’s for a boy, you’ll be directed to the science kits. Yet when our boys don’t play with art and dolls, they miss out and when our girls don’t play with science kits and Lego and building blocks, they miss out. While we don’t access all parts of our children’s minds from a very young age, we fail to cultivate them. We’re giving boys all the thoughts and girls all the feelings. But maybe your daughter is a future scientist or engineer, and your son might be a future artist or chef. But if we limit them from birth, will we ever find out who they could be?

Speaker 1 (07:35):

When my daughters hit kindergarten, I realized that our role as parents as the greatest influences in their lives was diminishing, and the teachers were starting to play an increasingly large role. They would return home from school, not have tales of what they learned, but of their teachers’ personal lives, “Did you know that Mr. Resendiz loves cats? Did you know that Ms. Lippert goes to Maine every summer?” The educators in their lives were playing an increasingly large role, yet in the classroom we are failing too.

Speaker 1 (08:11):

Teachers spend up to two thirds of their time talking to male students and teachers more often direct their gaze at boys than girls when asking questions. Teachers are praising girls for being quiet in the classroom, and they’re encouraging boys to give more thorough answers to questions. And sadly teachers are often unaware of the bias they’re bringing to the classroom.

Speaker 1 (08:38):

Do you remember the controversial Jane Elliott experiment? In the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination, the Iowa teacher split her white students into blue eyes and brown eyes. And for that day she told the whole class that the blue white students were indeed superior. She gave them extra helpings of food at lunch. She gave them extra recess time and seated them in the front of the classroom. And by the end of that day, they were outperforming the brown-eyed students.

Speaker 1 (09:09):

The next day, she reversed the experiment and the brown-eyed students outperformed the blue-eyed students. What we say to our kids matters. The words we use directly impacts their potential. When we tell them they can be anything, they bloom. When we don’t, they wilt. When we stereotype them based on their genders, that gets ingrained into their psyche.

Speaker 1 (09:38):

So what can you do? Well, there’s a lot and you can do it starting now. It starts with you. The next time you see a stereotype in a movie, point it out. The next time you go into a toy store and you’re asked if it’s for a girl or a boy, ask why it matters. The next time you see a child, look at them beyond their football uniform or their hair bows and compliment them on their character and their intelligence. The next time you sign your child up for a class, shake it up a bit, sign your daughters up for a Lego robotics class and your sons up for an art class. The next time you’re standing in front of a classroom, look out at the sea of future leaders, of judges, of engineers, of doctors and artists, independent of their gender.

Speaker 1 (10:31):

When we get rid of those pink and blue boxes, we open up our children to a kaleidoscope of potential. Let’s eradicate our own gender bias at home, on the playground, on the soccer field, and in the classrooms. Let’s instead aim to leave our boys and girls with one big feeling, “I can do anything. I can achieve anything. I can be and become anything.” Thank you.




www.gov.uk – Department for Education.

www.tda.gov.uk – The Training and Development Agency for Schools

www.childdevelopmentinfo.com – Child Development Institute

www.nhs.uk – NHS

www.teachernet.gov.uk – Teachernet

www.gov.uk – Department for Education.

www.tda.gov.uk – The Training and Development Agency for Schools


Books and Policy Papers


  • Supporting Teaching and Learning in Schools (Primary) (Burnham)  ISBN 9780435032043 (Heinemann 2010)
  • Understanding Schools as Organisations (Handy & Aitken) ISBN 9780140224900 (Penguin Books Ltd 1986)
  • Supporting Teaching and Learning in Schools (Primary) (Burnham)  ISBN 9780435032043 (Heinemann 2010)
  • A Teaching Assistant’s Guide to Child Development (Bentham) ISBN 9780415311083 (Routledge, 2003)
  • Successful School Transition (Dawrent) ISBN 9781855034358 (LDA, 2008)
  • Understanding Children and Young People: Development from 5-18 Years (Lindon) ISBN 9780340939109 (Hodder, 2010)