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Gender Roles In Children Essay, Research Paper

The Development of Gender Roles in Children

In a society filled with gender stereotypes and biases, children often adopt gender roles

which are not always equal to both males and females. As children move on through childhood

and later into adolescence many factors influence their views and behaviors towards gender roles.

These attitudes and behaviors are learned initially in the home, and later reinforced by many other

outside influences such as their school experiences, friends, teachers, and television. Children turn

out to internalize many of the gender stereotypes and behaviors of the past. Where are these

stereotypes coming from? The strongest influence on gender development occurs in the home,

with parents passing on many of the beliefs they have about gender roles.

Children learn at a young age what it means to be a boy or a girl in our society. Through

opportunities, encouragement and discouragement, obvious behaviors, covert suggestions, and

various types of guidance, children experience the formation of their gender role socialization. It

is hard for children to grow into adults without experiencing some form of gender bias or gender

stereotyping, whether it be that boys are supposed to be tough or better at math, or that females

can only play with dolls. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research states, parents, especially fathers,

tend to reward boys more than girls for displaying gender-congruent forms of play. They also

tend to punish boys more harshly than girls for deviations from prescribed gender role norms

(McCreary 519). Often times this punishment is mental, with boys being teased by their fathers

for acting like a sissy, or not being tough.

A child s earliest exposure to what it means to be male or female comes from parents.

From the time they are babies, parents treat sons and daughters differently, dressing infants in

gender specific colors and clothing, and giving toys based on gender. One study indicated that

parents have different expectations of sons and daughters as early as 24 hours after they are born

(Thorne 1993). Children internalize parental messages at a young age. Sex role differences have

been found in children as young as two years old. Developmental Psychology states, children at

two and a half years of age use gender stereotypes in negotiating their world and are likely to

generalize gender stereotypes to a variety of activities, objects, and occupations (Fagot 226).

Children many times will even deny that something is reality when it does not fit into their gender

expectations. For example, a young child might believe only a male could be a police officer or

firefighter, even if their mother holds that position.

Children s toy preferences can be directly related to parental influence, with parents

providing gender specific toys. Parents encourage participation in sex-typed activities, including

doll playing and housekeeping for girls, and playing with action figures and taking part in sports

activities for boys. Parents reward play that is gender stereotyped and encourage these behaviors

and attitudes. While both mothers and fathers contribute to the gender stereotyping of their

children, fathers have been found to reinforce gender stereotypes more often than do mothers

(Fagot 225-230). For example, fathers tend to reward their sons for behavior that show signs of

strength and dominance. A study of children s rooms reports that girls rooms have more pink,

dolls, and domestic play sets; boys rooms have more blue, sports equipment, tools, building

blocks, and vehicles (Pomerleau 359-367). Girls are more likely to take part in domestic chores,

such as house cleaning, laundry, and washing dishes, while boys are more likely to be given

maintenance chores like, mowing the lawn, taking out garbage, and fixing a broken fence. These

types of household chores lead children to link types of work to gender, thus enforcing gender


Parental attitudes toward children have a strong impact on developing their sense of self

and self esteem. Often times, parents send subtle messages regarding what is acceptable for each

gender. These messages are internalized by the child and are strongly established in early

childhood. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research states, messages about what is appropriate based

on gender are so strong, that even when children are exposed to different attitudes and

experiences, they will revert to stereotyped choices (McCreary 520). For example, boys would

avoid an activity like dancing because they see it as a traditionally feminine activity. Boys would

engage in more aggressive forms of play like football or baseball.

While there may be some benefits to strict gender role stereotypes, there are also some

costs. These costs include limiting opportunities for both boys and girls, ignoring talent, and

maintaining a level of unfairness in our society. Children whose mothers work outside the home

do not fit into the gender stereotype as much as those whose mothers stay at home. In fact,

preschool children whose mothers work outside the home experience the world with a sense that

everyone in the family gets to become a member of the outside world. Their sense of self includes

the knowledge that they have the ability to make choices which are not hindered by gender

(Lytton 267-296). Parents that do not fit the mold for gender stereotyping tend to offer more

parental warmth and support. These parents tend to be highly encouraging regarding achievement

and self worth in their children. One study reports, androgynous individuals have been found to

have higher self-esteem, higher levels of identity achievement, and more flexibility in dating and

love relationships (Lytton 292). Those parents who wish to be gender fair encourage the best

out of their sons and daughters, and their children are more likely to adopt an androgynous

parental style. Other elements in a child s environment help to reinforce the gender stereotypes

they are exposed to in the home, and are continued throughout their childhood into their

adolescence. A child s sense of self, or self-concept, is a result of the various ideas, attitudes,

behaviors, or beliefs, which he or she may be exposed to.

When children start school many of these gender based ideas and beliefs are reinforced by

their peers. Boys influence other boys through forms of punishment and reward. A boy that acts

in a particularly feminine manner is likely to be teased and ridiculed for acting like a girl.

Ultimately, these kids will be rejected by their peer groups and looked upon as outcasts. For

example, one study reports boys displaying cross-gender behaviors tend to play alone almost three

times more frequently than boys who act in a gender-congruent manner (Fagot 225-230).

Another study in the same journal reports that males described as having feminine attitudes or

acting in feminine ways were seen as less attractive and less popular than those boys portraying

traditionally masculine traits or attitudes. The avoidance of femininity seems to be a huge factor

in attempting to understand male gender and masculinity. Peer reaction to girls who deviate from

the traditionally feminine role is quite different; their behavior tends to be ignored and sometimes

even rewarded with elevated social status in their female peer groups (Fagot 225-230).

During my research I found as children move on through childhood and later adolescence,

many factors influence their views and behaviors towards gender roles. These attitudes and

behaviors are initially learned in the home, and are later reinforced by outside influences. The

strongest influence seems to occur in the home where parents covertly pass on gender bias

stereotypes to their children. Fathers seem to have a greater impact than do mothers on gender

roles in their children, especially young males. In a society filled with male dominance, I was not

surprised at the outcome of my research. Children raised to be androgynous have been found to

have higher self esteem, higher levels of identity achievement, and more success in personal

relationships. Parental influence on gender role socialization is so strong that those parents who

want to be gender fair would do well to adopt an androgynous gender role orientation and

encourage the same in their children. We are a society of those who should know better,

however, we turn out children that develop stereotypical gender roles. If we do not take steps to

teach our children individuality, we will continue to mask the biased opinions that continue to

arise in our society. Works Cited

Fagot, B.I., M.D. Leinbach, & C. O Boyle. Gender labeling, gender stereotyping, and

parenting behaviors. Developmental Psychology 1992: 225-230.

Hite, Sheer. Growing up in a new culture. New Statesman & and Society Mar. 1994:


Lytton, H., & D.M. Romney. Parents differential socialization of boys and girls: a

meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin 1991: 267-296.

McCreary, Donald R. The male role avoiding femininity. Sex Roles: A Journal of

Research v31 n9-10 (1994): 517-532.

Pomerleau, A., D. Bolduc, G. Malcuit, & L. Cossette Pink or blue: Environmental

gender stereotypes in the first two years of life. Sex Roles 1990: 359-367.

Spence, J.T., & R.L. Helmreich. Masculine instrumentality and feminine expressiveness:

Their relationship with sex role attitudes and behaviors. Psychology of Women 1992:


Thorne, B. Gender play: Girls and boys in school. New Brunswick, New Jersey:

Rutgers University Press, 1993.

Weinraub, M., L.P. Clemens, A. Sachloff, T. Ethridge, E. Gracely, & B. Myers. The

development of sex role stereotypes in the third year: Relationships to gender labeling,

gender identity, sex-typed toy preferences, and family characteristics.

Child Development 1984: 1493-1504.

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