How to Avoid Reinforcing Male vs. Female Gender Roles in Kids
Congratulations, it’s a girl! It’s a boy! Let’s celebrate with an elaborate tiered cake and pink or blue balloons!
We’ve all seen or participated in a gender reveal party. But despite modern culture recognizing the fluidity of gender and sexuality, these parties still persist. What’s the problem, exactly? Well, just that these reveal parties have nothing to do with gender at all. Parents are choosing to reveal the sex of their baby — the baby’s anatomy — not the baby’s gender, and conflating the two is potentially very harmful to children. (But more on the gender equality debate later.)
This is just one of many ways adults enforce male versus female stereotypes on children, often without even realizing they’re doing so. The strongest influence on a child’s gender role development is their family setting — which is why it’s so important to be conscious of how these roles are formed.
What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Gender?
We’ve come a long way when it comes to understanding gender, gender identity and sexuality — but we have a long road ahead of us. It’s still common to confuse gender, sex and gender identity (though less common with every new generation), so let’s explore what each of these terms means.
According to Planned Parenthood, gender is “a social and legal status, and set of expectations from society about behaviors, characteristics and thoughts,” while sex is “a label — male or female —that you’re assigned at birth based on the genitals you’re born with and the chromosomes you have.” Meanwhile, gender identity is "how you feel on the inside and how you express or perform your gender through personal appearance and behavior."
Though we tend to classify gender into two distinct forms (feminine and masculine; otherwise known as the “gender binary”), this is not representative of many people’s experiences. Gender is a fluid concept that transcends narrow definitions and the binary — and often, sex and gender do not align.
Where Do Gender Roles Come From?
Deciphering where gender roles come from is a complex, multifaceted topic, and it’s largely cultural. Every country and society has its own ideas about how men and women should look, feel and behave, according to different cultural norms. Social attitudes toward men and women show vast differences across countries, even those with similar economic institutions or governments.
Though these ideas may differ across cultures, one thing is certain: Children learn at a very early age what it means to be a boy or a girl, regardless of where they live. And unfortunately, for many kids, rigid gender expectations are associated with lifelong risks of mental and physical health problems, according to a recent study in the Journal of Adolescent Health. When children aren’t allowed to be themselves and express their identities as they see fit, this potentially puts them at risk for depression, substance abuse, exposure to violence and suicide.
How Have Gender Roles Fluctuated Throughout History?
Further illustrating the essential fluidity of gender is the fact that gender norms have changed greatly over time and are constantly in flux. Every generation has had its own ideas about what constitutes masculinity and femininity. For instance, did you know that pink used to be considered a “masculine” color? Or that during the Middle Ages, women were considered to be more inherently lustful than men? How about that high heels were actually created for men?
If you study human sexuality throughout history, you’re bound to find countless more examples of how gender role norms have changed over time, but let’s take a look at the three mentioned here.
Pink for Boys and Blue for Girls?
Interestingly, one of the most common gender signifiers of today — team pink for girls and team blue for boys — wasn’t established until the 1940s. In fact, pink used to be considered a boy’s color, according to Smithsonian.com. For centuries, all children wore practical, white dresses — because they could be easily pulled up to change diapers and bleached when soiled — until the 1920s, when pink was deemed an appropriate color for boys.
“The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl,” according to a 1918 copy of “Earnshaw’s Infants’ Development.”
Then, in the ’40s (for reasons unknown), clothing manufacturers decided on pink for girls and blue for boys, and this clothing standard persists today.
Women Used to Be Considered More Lustful
Culturally dictated attitudes about gender greatly influence what a society thinks about sexual behaviors and beliefs at any given time, and these attitudes have always been subject to change.
For example, the common modern stereotype that men are more sexual or more susceptible to their sexual desire than women wasn’t always the case. In the Middle Ages, women were seen as being more carnal by nature, according to the Decameron Web (a project of Brown University). The history of human sexuality is full of changing roles and ideas; who gets to be sexually assertive is just one example of these.
Male Soldiers Were the Original Wearers of High Heels
As the BBC reported, the high heel was originally worn by soldiers in Persia. Apparently, high heels were useful footwear for horseback riding, since, according to Elizabeth Semmelhack of the Bata Shoe Museum, “When the soldier stood up in his stirrups, the heel helped him to secure his stance so that he could shoot his bow and arrow more effectively.”
The European male elite copied this style in the 1600s, and gradually women began wearing them, too. In fact, as Semmelhack pointed out, women actually started wearing heels because they wanted to “masculinize their outfits.”
How Do Parents Influence Gender Roles?
Parents influence their children’s construction of gender in many ways — some that are obvious, others not so much. From the time children are babies, parents treat daughters and sons differently, from giving them gendered clothing and toys to expecting different behavior from girls and boys.
In order to better understand socially defined gender roles and how they manifest in our children, let’s take a look at some examples of the most common ways that parents (knowingly or not) pass down gender stereotypes to kids.
Assigning Gendered Chores in the Home
Often without even realizing it, parents tend to divide chores according to gender norms, which can then send the wrong message to kids about what work is for boys and what is for girls.
“In many families, girls’ responsibilities are limited to things like setting the table and washing dishes, while boys are expected to take care of more physical tasks, like mowing the lawn or taking out the trash,” according to Girl Scouts’ Developmental Psychologist Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald. “Not only does that send the wrong message to both boys and girls about what they’re capable of and what appropriate roles for them look like, but it also sets them up to be less likely to do certain types of tasks later in life.”
Associating Emotional Vulnerability With Femininity and Weakness
We live in a society that gives women and girls a vast emotional toolbox to work with — girls are allowed to display a full range of emotions (except, of course, anger), while boys are taught to hide their feelings (except, ironically, anger).
This gendered socialization starts early, which is why it’s so crucial to teach kids to be connected to their feelings so they can recognize how they feel, comfortably communicate those feelings and more easily connect with others. Children must be able to cry, be disappointed or sad, and sulk because all emotions are valid and should be respected.
Encouraging Children to Dress ‘Like a Boy’ or ‘Like a Girl’
One of the most common gender stereotypes that parents pass onto their children is that certain items of clothing somehow indicate girl-ness, while others indicate boy-ness — which, of course, says much more about an adult’s perception of gender than a child’s identity. The rules that govern what boys and girls should wear are arbitrary, and they have changed immensely over time.
For example, according to Author Dorothy Burnham (who wrote the book “Cut My Cote”), clothing used to be based on the shapes of the animal skins and fabrics it was fashioned from, not gender. Throughout history, there are many other examples of how gendered clothing styles have changed. There’s no such thing as “just for boys” or “just for girls” — there are just adults imposing antiquated gender norms.
Exposing Children to Gendered Toys
Much research has examined how parents choose toys, books and movies differently for boys and girls. Even if parents don’t explicitly endorse gendered messages, if they consistently buy toy kitchens, dolls and tea sets for girls while buying dinosaurs, cars and trains for boys, this sends an implicit message to children about their identities — namely about what’s considered acceptable to be interested in (and what’s not) based on your gender.
Selecting gender-neutral toys for children, starting from a young age, seems to be the best way to evade harmful gender stereotypes when it comes to toys, movies and books alike. “Gender-neutral toys equalize children’s opportunities to develop a wide range of concepts and skills. They also help counteract some stereotypes that limit children’s thinking about what and who they can and should be,” said Dr. Ann Barbour, professor emerita of Early Childhood Education at California State University, to Care.com.
The Bottom Line: How to Avoid Gender Biases
We all carry certain biases that are based on gender. Because parents are such a huge part of a child’s gender role socialization, it’s crucial to become aware of these biases so that you can counteract them.
Take a cold, hard look at your own biases — what are your preconceived ideas about how girls and boys should dress, act, think and feel? Check these biases by being mindful of the language you use with your kids (for instance, using gender-neutral terms like “firefighter” or “police officer” instead of “fireman” or policeman”); giving kids gender-neutral toys, clothing and books; and supporting a range of activities for children regardless of their gender.
Most importantly, parents should lead by example by doing things like splitting household duties and chores, never using gender as an excuse for behavior (no, boys will most certainly not be boys!) and teaching kids that gender divisions are due, not to innate differences, but to narrow stereotypes in our culture.