Parental Influence on Children's Socialization to Gender Roles

By Witt, Susan D. | Adolescence, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Parental Influence on Children's Socialization to Gender Roles


Witt, Susan D., Adolescence


INTRODUCTION

Children learn at a very early age what it means to be a boy or a girl in our society. Through myriad activities, opportunities, encouragements, discouragements, overt behaviors, covert suggestions, and various forms of guidance, children experience the process of gender role socialization. It is difficult for a child to grow to adulthood without experiencing some form of gender bias or stereotyping, whether it be the expectation that boys are better than girls at math or the idea that only females can nurture children. As children grow and develop, the gender stereotypes they are exposed to at home are reinforced by other elements in their environment and are thus perpetuated throughout childhood and on into adolescence (Martin, Wood, & Little, 1990).

A child's burgeoning sense of self, or self-concept, is a result of the multitude of ideas, attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs to which he or she is exposed. The information that surrounds the child and which is internalized comes to the child within the family arena through parent-child interactions, role modeling, reinforcement for desired behaviors, and parental approval or disapproval (Santrock, 1994). As children move into the larger world of friends and school, many of their ideas and beliefs are reinforced by those around them. A further reinforcement of acceptable and appropriate behavior is shown to children through the media, in particular, television. Through all these socialization agents, children learn gender stereotyped behavior. As children develop, these stereotypes become firmly entrenched beliefs and thus, are a part of the child's self-concept. Figure 1 illustrates some of the factors involved in parental influence on a child's self concept.

Parental Influence

A child's earliest exposure to what it means to be male or female comes from parents (Lauer & Lauer, 1994; Santrock, 1994; Kaplan, 1991). From the time their children are babies, parents treat sons and daughters differently, dressing infants in gender-specific colors, giving gender-differentiated toys, and expecting different behavior from boys and girls (Thorne, 1993). One study indicates that parents have differential expectations of sons and daughters as early as 24 hours after birth (Rubin, Provenzano, & Luria, 1974).

Children internalize parental messages regarding gender at an early age, with awareness of adult sex role differences being found in two-year-old children (Weinraub et al., 1984). One study found that 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, Leinbach, & O'Boyle, 1992; Cowan & Hoffman, 1986). Children even deny the reality of what they are seeing when it does not conform to their gender expectations (i.e., a child whose mother is a doctor stating that only men are doctors) (Sheldon, 1990).

Sons have a definite edge as far as parental preference for children is concerned. Most parents prefer male children throughout the world (Steinbacher & Holmes in Basow, 1992, p. 129). Also, people who prefer sons are more likely to use technology for selecting the sex of their child (Steinbacher & Gilroy, 1990). This preference for male children is further emphasized by the finding that parents are more likely to continue having children if they have only girls than if they have only boys (Hoffman, 1977).

Reasons given by women for their preference for sons are to please their husbands, to carry on the family name, and to be a companion to the husband. Reasons for wanting daughters include having a companion for themselves and to have fun dressing a girl and doing her hair (Hoffman, 1977).

Parents encourage their sons and daughters to participate in sex-typed activities, including doll playing and engaging in housekeeping activities for girls and playing with trucks and engaging in sports activities for boys (Eccles, Jacobs, & Harold, 1990). …

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