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Gender Roles Essay, Research Paper

Gender Roles

Children learn at a very early age what it means to be a boy or girl in our society. With all the gender stereotypes and biases, it is no wonder how sex

segregation exists. During childhood, children are exposed to many factors, which influence their attitudes and behaviors regarding gender roles. These attitudes are learned in the home, in schools, and even at the playground where children play among their peers. From the time they are born, children have already been assigned a gender. Blue blankets are used for baby boys, and pink ones for girls. It is difficult for a child to grow up without experiencing some form of gender bias or stereotyping. When in school, many of their ideas and beliefs are reinforced by their friends, teachers, and other adults. For example, when teachers ask their students to form two lines, there is usually one line for boys and the other for girls. When children play, they avoid playing with the opposite sex because they prefer the company of “their own kind.” The result is a self-imposed segregation between boys and girls.

Research has been done on this phenomenon. Many sociologists have been trying to explain gender roles and differences. Some say sex differences are biologically determined and some believe they are socially constructed. Children behave accordingly to their gender roles as early as two or three years old. From preschool on up to middle-school, children live in two separate worlds– girls and

boys. Inside the classroom, children often chose to sit with others of the same sex. This separation is also seen outside of the classroom– boys played with other boys and girls with other girls. Barrie Thorne who wrote, “Girls and Boys Together…But Mostly Apart: Gender Arrangements in Elementary Schools,” states that the separate worlds exist as a result of “deliberate activity” (p. 140). Boys and girls have separate tables where they sit in the lunchroom. If a boy were to sit on one of the girls’ tables, he would be laughed at or called a girl by other boys. Thorne explains that teachers and aides use gender as a basis for sorting children and organizing activities. They have math and spelling contests where boys compete with girls and sometimes children are lined up separately when walking down the halls.

Other studies have distinguished between aspects of stereotypes by separately asking about what is typical in girls and boys versus what would be ideal. For example, Rothbart and Maccoby (1966) assessed parents’ opinions about differences that actually exist between boys and girls and differences that should exist. Similarly, Maccoby and Jacklin (1974) were interested in comparing parents’ beliefs about sex differences in young children with how desirable certain characteristics are for girls and boys. They reported that the characteristics perceived as being typical of boys and girls were quite different. Typical boy behaviors were being noisy, rough, active, competitive, defying punishment, and enjoying mechanical objects. Typical girl behaviors were helpful, neat and clean, quiet, well-mannered, crying, and being easily frightened. In contrast, parents reported that it was important for both boys and girls to be neat and clean, helpful, to take care of themselves, not to cry, to be competitive, and to be thoughtful and considerate. These results lead Maccoby and Jacklin to speculate that parents may be trying to socialize children of both sexes toward the same goals.

In my field research, I observed children in an elementary school in order to understand how gender roles are formed, especially at an early age. I went to Hollingworth Elementary School in West Covina, California. This is the school I went to during my years in elementary. The school is only a ten-minute walk from my house in Los Angeles. The children I was most interested in studying were from the ages of six through eight– first and second graders. I took on the view from a distant position, being a complete observer. I went to the school during their lunch hour, observing the children during their recess time. I only had a notebook and pen in order to write down what I observed. I situated myself on one o the planters located to the side of the “blacktop”, near the handball courts. Before starting my observation, I went to the principal’s office to inform them of my research project. They were very accommodating and told me I was able to observe the children from a distance. I did not spend five hours in one day observing the children. Instead, I went to the school during the week and observed them about an hour each time.

The role I took on as a complete observer did not pose any problems. A few children looked and stared at me, probably wondering what I was doing there, sitting alone on a planter. I was very comfortable where I was and had no problems, aside from the looks. I wondered if my being there caused the children to behave differently but after awhile, the children went on playing their games and did not seem to notice me anymore. There were no significant differences each time I observed the children. The setting was the same?I sat on the same planter with my notebook and pen in hand.

Through my observations, I have concluded that children learn to adopt to their gender roles at an early age. Through their many activities, games, and encouragements and discouragements from teachers, children experience the process of gender role socialization. There are always some sort of stereotyping of boys and girls, whether it be the expectation that boys are better than girls in math or the idea that only females can nurture children. The children I observed proved that at an early age, boys and girls unconsciously learn to behave according to their gender roles. Their sense of self is a result of the ideas, attitudes, and beliefs to which he or she is exposed. The teachers and aides who were watching the children during recess proved this point. For example, a boy who was playing kickball accidentally ran into another boy when he tried to get to the first base. The other boy then pushed him and the teacher ran out to the field. The teacher handled the boys aggressively, pulling them away from each other and telling them to stand on the blacktop for the rest of their recess. Another instance was with three girls playing jumprope. One of the girls got caught on the rope and then fell down. The teacher rushed to her as the girl started to cry. She handled her with more care and spoke to her with a more comforting voice, unlike the situation with the boys.

While playing their games, boys and girls tend to play with their own gender. I observed one situation where one boy started watching the girls playing on the twirling bars. One of his friends came up to him and said, ?What are you doing? That?s for girls. Let?s go.? The boy looked a little embarrassed and quickly left with his friend to play kickball. There were a couple of instances where boys interacted with girls. That was when one boy was chasing two girls. He chased her in the field while the girl started teasing him and chanting, ?Jason has cooties?.Jason has cooties.? When recess ended, everyone had to freeze until the teacher blew her whistle for the children to line up to their rooms. In front of each door, the children formed two lines?one for the boys and the other for the girls. One teacher encouraged this by reminding them that the ?boys on the left side and girls on the right.? As mentioned before, children learn to act according to their gender roles. They are taught how to behave and how to act amongst their peers. One day, a teacher actually told a boy to stop crying because ?boys are not supposed to cry.? I found this very interesting especially since she did not say the same thing to the girl who fell while playing jumprope. Children are then told how to behave according to their gender role. When observing the whole playground, I noticed that girls played nicely and boys more aggressively. The girls were more courteous when it came to letting others join in their gams. Boys tended to shout at other boys saying, ?You can?t play?you?re too late?you have to wait till we?re done.?

From this field research project I have learned that children do learn to behave according to their gender roles. Not only are their ideas and attitudes being shaped and reinforced by their teachers, but their friends as well. Teachers often act differently when interacting with boys than with girls. They are more aggressive towards boys and more comforting and closer to the girls. I also noticed that the girls played in areas that were closer to their teachers. The boys played out in the field, away from teachers who could easily discourage them from acting the way they want to act. My field research was comparable to that of Barrie Thorne?s. In Thorne?s data, he sometimes found girls and boys playing together in kickball and other group games. When these children defined an activity to be a girl or boy?s game, whoever crosses the boundary, would risk being teased. This teasing, according to Thorne, is used to police or control gender boundaries. There was not much contrast with his observations compared to mine. In summary, boys take on a more aggressive and rough role than do girls. They are not supposed to cry or show signs of feminine behaviors. Girls are handled more with care and they tend to behave more quietly and nicely than do boys.

If I were to continue with this project, I would take it to another level and observe adolescents. I would then compare both results to see if teens also behave this way. I would want to know if adolescents are influenced to behave according to their gender roles by the friends they hang around with and by their teachers. If I had more time on my hands, I would observe college students as well. In this case I would take on the role of a participant as observer.

Garner, Pamela W., Shannon Robertson, and Gail Smith.

?Preschool Children?s Emotional Expressions With

Peers: The Roles of Gender and Emotion Socialization.?

Sex Roles: A Journal of Research. Volume 36, June

1997. Plenum Publishing Corporation 1997, pp. 11-13.

Martin, Carol Lynn. ?Stereotypes About Children With

Traditional and Non-traditional Gender Roles.? Sex

Roles: A Journal of Research. Volume 33, Dec. 1995.

Plenum Publishing Corporation 1995, pp. 25-27.

Thorne, Barrie. ?Girls and Boys Together?But Mostly Apart:

Gender Arrangements in Elementary Schools.?

Relationships and Development. Lawrence Erlbaum

Associates, Inc. 1986, pp. 138-141.

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