Gender Role Expectations and Socialization - A Guide for Parents

Children live in a gendered world populated by toys, clothing, and room decorations. Parents implicitly socialize their children’s gender behavior through play (MacPhee & Prendergast, 2019). Play is how children learn most of the developmental lessons that will shape who they are and help to determine their internal identity. No doubt who we were raised has a large impact on how you raise your children. You assume, girls like pink and boys like blue. Girls get dolls while boys play with trucks. These gender schemas are common and shared sources on internalized bias (Gowaty, 2018).

Studies conducted over the past 40 years have shown that adults empirically treat children different based on their perceived gender. Babies dresses as girls received more smiles that those dressed as boys. And parents also gave more positive non-verbal responses to their toddlers when picking toys deemed ‘gender appropriate’ by the parent (Marshall, 2012). Mothers appear to have more acceptance for non-gendered play and it is deemed more acceptable for girls to play with ‘boy toys’ than for boys to play with ‘girl toys’. Research also showed that children in families of same gendered siblings, or girls who spend more time in preschool had more gender-typed playthings than their counterparts (MacPhee & Prendergast, 2019).

While we spend a lot of time talking about the gender roles we place on young girls and the equality that is needed for women, I want us to not forget about our boys. As a mother of three boys, I’ve seen where there are gaps in support for the raising of young men. In the desire to provide more gender equality for girls, boys have simply been encouraged to make way for girls (Marshall, 2012). While research shows that parents with egalitarian attitudes are less likely to encourage gender-typed roles, our attitudes towards gender roles represent our perspectives on appropriate roles for boys and for girls (MacPhee & Prendergast, 2019).

A few weeks into my first grad school course on gender and racial equality, I realized as I needed to make a change in my parenting style. As a woman, I’ve had my fair share of gender discrimination and abuse from men. This can leave a negative view of men in general for many women affected by the same. I realized that as a mother of boys, I was preaching similar feminist statements that men are dangerous, men can hurt you, be wary of men … all while raising 3 young men at home. I was spending my time telling them what not to be, but never invested in teaching them what they should be. Unfortunately, our society does that to young boys and men a lot. Gender equality is not just a woman’s issue, but boys and men benefits as well (Looze et al, 2018).

Research in multiple countries have shown the changes of being happy are twice as high for both genders in the most gender-equal countries compared to the least gender-equal countries. Children in gender-equal societies have about half the chance of being depressed, 40% less risk of violent death, and experience an increased social support from their family, peers, and school context (Looze et al, 2018). Gender equality can only positively impact the development of both your sons and daughters and both parents, where possible play an important role.

Fathers play an important role in gender equality development of their children and research shows they have better relationships with their children when involved (Looze et al, 2018 / Eklund & Lundqvist, 2021). A recent study in Sweden of the parental support policies provided to families showed that on average, 20% of fathers take an active part in parenting support. Studies further show what adolescents report having closer and more trusted communication with their mothers (45%) and friends (50%) than with fathers (26%) (Eklund & Lundqvist, 2021). It’s not too late for fathers to get more involved in their children's development and improve the father / child relationship.

I’ll close with providing you some helpful resources to improve your knowledge of gender socialization and role expectations in childhood development and a quote that really struck me and hope you can take as an action for yourself.

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Gender Role Expectations and Socializati
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Eklund, L. & Lundqvist, A. (2021). Children's rights and gender equality in Swedish parenting support: policy and practice. Journal of Family Studies. 21:1, 32-47.

Gowaty, P. A. (2018). Biological essentialism, gender, true belief, confirmation biases, and skepticism. In APA handbook of the psychology of women: History, theory, and battlegrounds, Vol. 1. (pp. 145–164). American Psychological Association.

Looze, M. E. de, Huijts, T., Stevens, G. W. J. M., Torsheim, T., & Vollebergh, W. A. M. (2018). The happiest kids on Earth. Gender equality and adolescent life satisfaction in Europe and North America. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 47(5), 1073–1085.

MacPhee, D., & Prendergast, S. (2019). Room for improvement: Girls’ and boys’ home environments are still gendered. Sex Roles, 80(5/6), 332–346.

Marshall, C. (2012). Raising boys who play with dolls. Eureka Street, 22(7), 39–40.

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