Although children are born male or female, gender roles are learned. Most little girls are not born loving dolls or wanting to be mothers, and most little boys are not born with a love of cars and tools. They learn these preferences, as well as other gender norms and rules, through the process of gender socialization. Parents play a large role in the gender socialization of their children because they are their children's first role models and friends.
Parents serve as powerful role models for children. The gender roles that the parents portray is learned by their children and can become part of their schema for what men and women do and how they should behave. However, in some cases, the media and society can override even the powerful parental influence. For example, a child may deny that women can be physicians even when their own mother is a physician.
One of the first ways in which parents socialize their children to accept their role as one gender or another is through clothing. Often as soon as parents find out the sex of their child, they begin purchasing gender-appropriate clothing, which is usually pink or related colors such as purple for girls or blue and green for boys. Girls get dresses, and boys get pants. These items of clothing not only help reinforce the gender identity of the baby for the parents, but they also tell outsiders which gender the baby is and, consequently, how to treat that baby.
Children also learn about their gender roles through the toys their parents select for them. Little girls tend to be given toys that encourage them to nurture and to share, such as dolls and stuffed animals. Little boys, on the other hand, are given toys that are related to building, sports or other "masculine" pursuits. These toys encourage activities that are seen as appropriate for the gender. For example, toys meant for little boys, such as sports toys or games meant for boys, tend to encourage them to compete.
Parents further participate in the gender socialization process through the activities they select for their children once they are old enough to participate in outside activities. For example, although some sports, such as basketball, can be for boys or girls, many sports are divided by gender. Girls are more likely to participate in sports such as cheerleading and gymnastics, while boys are more likely to be involved with football and hockey. Parents may further this differentiation by encouraging girls to participate in dance and art, while encouraging boys to participate in activities like wood shop.
Raising a Child with Fewer Gender Barriers
Perpetuating these gender roles has detrimental effects on children because they limit opportunities and further gender bias in our society. As a result, many parents are trying to raise their children in a more androgynous manner, allowing them to choose the clothing, toys and activities that appeal to the child, regardless of their sex. Raising children in an androgynous manner may lead to higher self esteem and increased flexibility in jobs and dating.
- Sage Publications Questioning Gender: Chapter 4 -- How Do We Learn Gender?
- Susan D. Witt, Ph.D University of Akron: Parental Influence on Children's Socialization to Gender Roles
- Washington State University Department of Sociology: SOC 101 Section 19 -- Lecture 17 Gender Socialization
- Journal of Exercise and Sport Physiology: Family Socialization, Gender, and Sport Motivation and Involvement
- Jupiterimages/Creatas/Getty Images