Parents may find themselves confused on whether or not to perpetuate gender stereotypes when raising their children.
Should parents raise their boys differently from their girls, and what determines gender in the first place?
Most studies confirm that opportunities for a full life rely on how children are raised.
Some parents find that it is more important to treat children as individuals, while totally ignoring their gender. According to this theory, if gender is disregarded, things become more equal between the sexes.
Dr Susan Witt from the University of Akron in Ohio, USA, published an online overview of a study she conducted on parental influence in children’s socialisation. In the study, Witt maintains that societies have gender stereotypes and bias, which force children to adopt gender roles, which are not fair to either sex. Parents’ own ideas and beliefs influence the growing child, with regards to his gender role and these beliefs are reinforced by the child’s school, peers and through media such as TV.
Through a myriad of experiences, opportunities, encouragement, discouragement and guidance — children experience the process of gender role socialisation, gender bias or stereotyping.
Do children know the difference?
“Research shows that infants can tell the difference between males and females as early as their first year,” says Elaine Blakemore, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Indiana University Purdue University, in Fort Wayne. In addition to this, children begin forming gender stereotypes almost as soon as they are aware of being a boy or girl.
Gary Levy, Ph.D., director of the Infant Development Centre at the University of Wyoming, in Laramie, studied 10-month-olds to see if they could comprehend gender-related information. “We showed the babies videos of certain objects paired with either a male or a female face,” he says. “The children became accustomed to seeing certain objects with a man’s face and others with a woman’s face, and they recognised when we violated this pattern.”
Although children’s environment plays an important role in gender development, Eleanor Maccoby, author of “The Two Sexes: Growing Up Apart, Coming Together, ” argues that direct socialization into gender roles by parents, doesn’t appear to be as singular an influence on children’s sex-typed preferences and behaviours as once was thought.
“By and large, the daily routines of family life do not have much impact on the strong tendency of children to separate into same-sex groups, and probably not on the distinctive activities enacted by male and female groups,” Maccoby says.
Experiments with nonhuman primates indicate that administering testosterone to female fetuses late in gestation, yields more typically masculine behaviour. What’s more, studies also reveal that gender roles are not limited to humans, but also appear in other animals.
“The parallels are sufficiently strong, I believe, to give us some confidence that there is an evolved, genetic basis for several of the robust gender divergences that have been documented in human children,” Maccoby added.
In an online review by Justin Martin published in White Root Medial, Martin explores: Where biology ends and society takes over in gender role assignment? He studied Debora Blum’s publication regarding this and concluded that:
- Biology plays a larger part than is commonly believed.
- Gender roles are controlled according to society’s common beliefs, values and social mentality.
- Some genetic traits are difficult to change, no matter what lifestyle.
- Society is probably the largest factor determining who we are.
Biological influences that are also considered when determining gender include:
- Genetics: Girls xx and boys xy.
- Hormonal: Testosterone and androgen is higher in males (influencing hair distribution amongst others) and estrogen is higher in females facilitating primary biological characteristics like ovulation, menstruation, gestation, lactation.
- Gonadal differences: Ovaries in females and testes in men underlie the primary genital and reproductive differences (sperm production in men).
- Brain function: There is new evidence that there are also brain function differences between male and female.
Cultural studies suggest that children learn gender appropriate functions from their respective cultures — this is known as conventional wisdom. For example, for thousands of years, women were not involved in physically demanding tasks therefore women had to align with powerful men to attain social, political and economic resources.
Culture and tradition shows women as nurturing, and as such, women have been delegated the responsibility. Power, control and privilege is what feminists maintain, causes the social division between male and female.
Interaction between biological and cultural forces
Different cultures imprint different behaviours according to traditional forces and values that are placed on gender.
The result is that:
- Most males have inherent power in patriarchal settings.
- Modern social learning rewards conforming to expectations and punishes otherwise.
- Traditional or confined sex roles inhibit the full range of emotions.
- Gender gives a standard to which everyone compares his own ability and behaviour.
- Gender is reinforced with different clothing and hair styles.
- Parental treatment in toy selection.
In 2011 – a Canadian couple gave birth to a baby named Storm and did not disclose the baby’s gender to the world. The parents maintained that such a practice was “a tribute to freedom and choice in the place of limitation”.
The couples parenting style was criticized from a psychological perspective.
Psychologists argued that by imposing a genderless role on the child, this was also a burden on the child. Experts further argued that Storm will need to understand his/her own sex and gender in order to navigate his/her world.
This concept can be attributed to the “Story of X” in the 70s, a fictional story about a baby raised by his parents who did not tell anyone if “X” was a boy or girl. The story was published in Ms Magazine (USA). Studies conducted around this topic found that the way children are treated is in accordance with their gender.
The child’s self-concept
Self-concept results from a multitude of stimuli to which the child is exposed. Behaviour that is reinforced by parents becomes an entrenched belief that ultimately makes up a child’s self-concept. The parental attitude towards the child strongly impacts on his developing self-esteem. Warmth and support (security) are found to be the key-factors in this development stage.
Gender roles are important for the formation of self-identity and self-esteem.
Gender identity is a composite of rights and obligations warranted to an individual by virtue of his associated sex.
While sex is ascribed at birth, gender is assigned by successful achievement of accomplishments of developmental tasks. These roles may be a limiting force on the individual as they inform our choices.
What is androgynous gender role orientation?
A stereotyped gender role orientation supports the concept that parents provide security and facilitate decision-making by the child, based on traditional values of the specific culture (which are stereotyped for the gender of that child). It however limits opportunities for both genders, ignoring talent and perpetuating unfairness in society. But an egalitarian approach though, is more likely to foster unlimited opportunities for a child.
An androgynous approach allows differentiation, more movement for the child to decide as he is more knowledgeable about non-sex-typed objects and occupations in the outside world. Every member has a fair chance where ability helps to make choices which are not hindered by gender. It is found that children in androgynous settings have higher levels of achievement.
In studies, children in the androgynous groups, were found to have a higher self-esteem and higher levels of identity achievement and are more flexible in dating and loving relationships. Androgynous parents (mom repairing the car and dad cooking) had higher scores in parental warmth and tended more to encourage achievement and development of self-worth in the child.
According to Blum, gender should not determine who we are.
Studies suggest that an androgynous gender role orientation may be more beneficial than the strict adherence to the traditional role. In this way parents are able to work towards gender fairness and encourage the best in both sons and daughters.
Parents adopting an androgynous role orientate and encourage the same in their children.