Reading is one of the single most important skills a young child will learn. With exposure to books comes a rich vocabulary, the ability to absorb new knowledge sets, and a chance to step into another's shoes.
When it comes to gender, empathy, and acceptance (both of self, and others), there's something lovely that happens with reading called "passing over," as coined by theologian John Dunne. He explains that reading allows us to do more than empathize with characters, it lets us step into their bodies, experience the world as the person we're reading about, and try on a new personality. Through both listening to stories, and eventually becoming fluent/advanced in reading, we're able to truly experience the lives of another person through written words.
"Through this exposure we learn both the commonality and the uniqueness of our own thoughts - that we are individuals but not alone," writes Maryanne Wolfe in her book Proust and the Squid.
What does this mean for kids?
Young children are just learning how to identify themselves and those around them. For example, a female toddler who primarily reads/listens to books that show girls in dresses, pining over princes, will learn to identify her girlhood with dresses and future romance. That, coupled with the fact that mothers in books are three times more likely to be completing household tasks including cooking, cleaning, and caring for children, sets a pretty clear outline for what defines a "girl" or a "mother".
A child uses everything they hear and see to define the world around them, including themselves.
This can also be said for boys who only see girls in books as care-takers and princesses. They are defining both what they are not, and what the opposite sex is.
In a study of over 300 randomly chosen picture books it was shown that the father or male figure is portrayed as a playmate or companion more often than not, and is rarely shown saying "I love you".
Think about that for a second.
A male toddler may only see fathers depicted as playmates who do not express emotion verbally in stories. He is also being flooded with images of moms caring for, and nurturing, their children. It's not a stretch to assume that toddler is beginning to formulate an idea of what makes him, a boy, different from his sister, a girl. The idea might revolve around him growing into a person who enjoys rowdy play and shies away from emotion.
How to use books to your advantage
Just like stereotype-reinforcing books can negatively skew a child's view of gender norms and identify, great books can open their minds.
"An expanding sense of "other" changes who we are, and, most importantly for children, what we imagine we can be", Wolfe explained.
Parents aren't the only ones who have noticed that the children's books of past tend to be a bit antiquated in their view of the world. Writers are flooding the market with books designed to help children understand those different than themselves and expand their definition of "normal" in relation to gender and identity.
By stepping into another character's shoes, we can actually increase the ability of a child to empathize. For example, the book Ada Twist, Scientist follows a young girl who has a love of science. She asks questions - too many questions! - and is always making a mess with her experiments. She's the epitome of a smart, curious, kid with STEM inclinations. When a young boy reads that book, he can step into Ada's experience as both a girl and as a scientist. He can try on her life, and imagine living in the world as a girl who just wants to know "why".
That exercise in understanding may help broaden his understanding of women in the future as he learns more than one definition of what it means to be a "girl".
On the flip side, a girl who reads the same book might see herself reflected in the character. Or she might see who she'd like to be. By stepping into the book, a young girl can test out her feelings and preferences. Does she like to ask questions? Would she like to be a scientist herself? Rather than just trying on the role of "mother" and "caretaker", diversity in books allows a child to mentally explore many different paths and decide what he or she finds most appealing.
That will help remove any mental limitations they set for themselves based on common stereotypes, and also allow them to understand others in a unique and impactful way.