When parents have a new baby, the first question they typically ask is whether they have a girl or a boy. Children’s gender assignment becomes a powerful social identity that shapes children’s lives. During early childhood, girls and boys spend much of their time in the home with their families and look to parents and older siblings for guidance. Parents provide children with their first lessons about gender. Possible ways that parents might influence children’s gender development include role modeling and encouraging different behaviours and activities in sons and daughters.1
One of the challenges for researchers studying parental socialization is to separate the influences of parents on children and the influences of children on parents.2 Fifty years ago, when researchers observed correlations between parenting practices and children’s behaviour the typical inference was that the parents were influencing the children. However, developmental psychologists now recognize that children also influence their parents’ behaviour. Thus, drawing conclusions about causal influences of parental socialization on children’s gender development must be made carefully.
Key Research Questions
When evaluating the influence of parents on children’s gender development, four questions are pertinent:
- Do parents tend to have gender-stereotypical expectations for their children?
- Do parents tend to model traditional gender-role behaviours to their children?
- Do parents tend to encourage gender-stereotyped behaviours and to discourage cross-gender-stereotyped behaviours in their children?
- Do gender-related variations in parents’ expectations and behaviour have causal influences on children’s gender development?
Parents’ gender-stereotypical expectations.
Gender-typed expectations may occur regarding personality traits (e.g., “boys are aggressive”), abilities (e.g., “girls are good at reading”), activities, and roles (e.g., “men are scientists”).3 As gender equality has increased in many many cultures during the last several decades, there has been a corresponding increase in adults’ endorsement of gender-egalitarian attitudes. There is now more variation among parents with some holding traditional expectations and some expressing egalitarian expectations for their daughters and sons.4,5 Also, some parents may support egalitarian views about some domains (e.g., occupations) but remain more traditional about other domains (e.g., family roles). Finally, parents (especially fathers) tend to be more rigid in their expectations for sons than daughters.6
Parents’ gender-role modeling.
One of the dramatic social changes in much of the industrialized world in the last 50 years has been in the entrance of women into the labor force. In contemporary industrialized societies, most women with children work outside of the home. Men’s average involvement in childcare and housework has also increased, although domestic responsibilities continue to be handled mostly by women in most dual-career families.6 Research finds that fathers’ childcare involvement is negatively related to children’s gender stereotyping. Through active involvement in childcare, fathers demonstrate that the adult male role may include nurturing as well as instrumental activities.7
The potential influence of parental gender-role modeling has also been implicated in studies of children raised by lesbian or gay parents.8 Compared to children raised in two-parent heterosexual families, children raised by same-gender parents tend be less likely than to endorse certain gender stereotypes. However, when same-gender parents divided labor with one parent as primary caregiver and the other parent as the primary breadwinner, their children were more likely to express stereotyped views about adult roles and occupations.8
Parents’ differential treatment of daughters and sons.
In many parts of the world, parents with limited financial resources have a strong preference for sons. As a result, priority for resource opportunities ranging from health care to education may be given to sons over daughters.9 This stark contrast in the differential treatment of sons and daughters is generally not seen in wealthier countries. Nonetheless, there are common ways that parents in these societies may socialize girls and boys differently.
According to one comprehensive review of studies conducted in western countries, the most consistent manner by which parents treat girls and boys differently is through the encouragement of gender-stereotyped activities.10 This includes the types of toys that parents might purchase or the kinds of activities that they promote. For example, parents are more likely to provide toy vehicles, action figures, and sports equipment for their sons; and they are more likely to give dolls, kitchen sets, and dress-up toys to their daughters. Once children begin to request particular toys (usually by around 3 years of age), it is unclear how much parents are shaping their children’s play activity preferences as opposed to acceding to their children’s stated preferences.11
There are also subtle ways that parents may reinforce gender stereotypes even when they are not overtly encouraging them. This is commonly seen in parents’ use of essentialist statements about gender. Examples would be “Girls like dolls” or “Boys like football.” In these instances, the parent is expressing what is known as a descriptive stereotype (i.e., describing general patterns or “essences” about each gender) rather than prescriptive stereotype (i.e., stating what should occur). Research suggests that even middle-class mothers who held gender-egalitarian attitudes often used essentialist statements with their preschool-age children. Also, they rarely challenged gender stereotypes (e.g., “It’s ok if a girl wants to play basketball”).12,13
On average, parents in many industrialized cultures are more flexible about the play activities they consider acceptable for daughters than sons.6,10(Relatively little research has examined parental attitudes toward girls’ and boys’ play in non-western or non-industrialized countries.) Also, fathers tend to be more rigid than mothers in encouraging gender-typed play (especially in sons).6,10 For example, many American parents encourage athletic participation (a masculine-stereotyped activity) in their daughters. In contrast, few parents encourage doll play (a feminine-stereotyped activity) in their sons. Indeed, many parents are alarmed in such cases. However, evidence suggests that some parents are more tolerant of cross-gender-typed behaviours in sons than seen in earlier decades.4,14
More research is needed that addresses the extent and the manner by which parents influence their children’s gender development. Previous research has been largely based on correlational designs that do not prove causation. Some associations in behaviour between parents and their biological children may be due to shared genetic influences (e.g., activity level is partly inherited).2 Well-conducted longitudinal research is best able to address possible casual influences. The relative importance of parents compared to other socializing agents (peer groups, media, teachers, etc.) needs to be examined in more depth. In addition, more research needs to consider indirect forms of parental influence. For example, by encouraging children’s involvement in organized activities (e.g., sports teams, science camps), parents can affect their children’s experience outside of the family.15 Finally, we need a better understanding of how cultural contexts shape gender roles in the family and the socialization of girls and boys.16
Dramatic transformations in women’s and men’s roles inside and outside of the family have occurred during the last half century in most of the industrialized world. The traditional image of the two-parent heterosexual family with the father serving as the provider and the mother as the homemaker is no longer the norm in many industrialized countries. Instead, most mothers pursue jobs outside of the home and many fathers are involved in childcare. In addition, many children are raised by single parents and by lesbian/gay parents. Despite these role changes, there remain relatively few truly egalitarian parenting arrangements. Also, studies suggest that parents with gender-egalitarian attitudes may nonetheless act differently with daughters and sons.12 Longitudinal studies suggest that parents’ treatment of sons and daughters may have an influence on some aspects of their gender development.3,6
Implications for Parents, Service Providers, and Policy Makers
Parents, service providers, and policy makers may wish to foster more flexible gender roles in children to help them develop a broader repertoire of socioemotional and cognitive skills. Although parents can have an influence on children’s gender development, their impact can sometimes be overestimated. Because gender is a social category that organizes virtually every segment of society, there are multiple sources of socialization in children’s gender development. Besides parents, these potentially include other family members, peer groups, friends, the media, and teachers.11 As children get older and become more autonomous, the influences of peers and the media often become especially powerful.
Parents can try to encourage their children to play with a combination of feminine- and masculine-stereotyped toys and play activities during early childhood; however, they may find their efforts run counter to children’s attitudes once they are exposed to peers and the media. In addition, parents can be mindful of the kinds of peers with whom their children affiliate. They may be able to foster greater gender-role flexibility through encouragement of organized mixed-gender activities in which girls and boys learn to work together as equals. Finally, parents can make a concerted effort to discuss and challenge gender stereotypes with their children.
- Bussey K., Bandura A. Social cognitive theory of gender development and differentiation. Psychological Review. 1999;106:676-713.
- Collins WA, Maccoby EE, Steinberg L, Hetherington EM, Bornstein MH. Contemporary research on parenting: The case for nature and nurture. American Psychologist. 2000;55:218-232.
- Ruble DN, Martin CL, Berenbaum S. Gender development. In Damon W, Lerner RM. (series eds), Eisenberg N (vol. ed.). Handbook of child psychology. Vol. 3. Social, emotional, and personality development, 6th ed. New York, NY: Wiley; 2006:858-932.
- Blakemore JEO, Hill CA. The Child Gender Socialization Scale: A measure to compare traditional and feminist parents. Sex Roles. 2008;58:192-2007.
- Marks JL, Lam CB, McHale SM. Family patterns of gender role attitudes. Sex Roles. 2009;61:221-234.
- McHale SM, Crouter AC, Whiteman S. The family contexts of gender development in childhood and adolescence. Social Development. 2003;12:125-148.
- Deutsch FM, Servis LJ, Payne JD. Paternal participation in child care and its effects on children’s self-esteem and attitudes toward gendered roles. Journal of Family Issues. 2001;22:1000-1024.
- Fulcher M, Sutfin EL, Patterson CJ. Individual differences in gender development: Associations with parental sexual orientation, attitudes, and division of labor. Sex Roles. 2008;58:330-341.
- Rafferty Y. International dimensions of discrimination and violence against girls: A human rights perspective. Journal of International Women's Studies. 2013;14:1-23.
- Lytton H, Romney DM. Parents’ differential socialization of boys and girls: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin. 1991;109:267-296.
- Leaper C, Bigler RS. Gender. In Underwood M, Rosen LH, eds. Social development: Relationships in infancy, childhood, and adolescence. New York: Guilford Press; 2011:289-315.
- Gelman SA, Taylor MG, Nguyen SP. The developmental course of gender differentiation. Monographs of the Society for Research in Children Development. 2004;69(1):vii-127.
- Friedman CK, Leaper C, Bigler RS. Do mothers’ gender-related attitudes or comments predict young children’s gender beliefs? Parenting: Science and Practice. 2007;7:357-366.
- Wood E, Desmarais S, Gugula S. The impact of parenting experience on gender stereotyped toy play of children. Sex Roles. 2002;47:39-49.
- Eccles JS, Barber BL, Stone M, Hunt J. Extracurricular activities and adolescent development. Journal of Social Issues. 2003;59:865-889.
- Best DL. Gender roles in childhood and adolescence. In Gielen UP, Roopnarine JL, eds. Childhood and adolescence in cross-cultural perspective. Westport, CT: Greenwood; 2004:199-228.
- Identify five agents of socialization.
- Describe positive and negative aspects of the socialization these agents produce.
Several institutional and other sources of socialization exist and are called agents of socialization. The first of these, the family, is certainly the most important agent of socialization for infants and young children.
Should parents get the credit when their children turn out to be good kids and even go on to accomplish great things in life? Should they get the blame if their children turn out to be bad? No parent deserves all the credit or blame for their children’s successes and failures in life, but the evidence indicates that our parents do affect us profoundly. In many ways, we even end up resembling our parents in more than just appearance.
Sociology Making a Difference
Understanding Racial Socialization
In a society that is still racially prejudiced, African American parents continue to find it necessary to teach their children about African American culture and to prepare them for the bias and discrimination they can expect to encounter. Scholars in sociology and other disciplines have studied this process of racial socialization. One of their most interesting findings is that African American parents differ in the degree of racial socialization they practice: some parents emphasize African American identity and racial prejudice to a considerable degree, while other parents mention these topics to their children only minimally. The reasons for these differences have remained unclear.
Sociologist Jason E. Shelton (2008) analyzed data from a national random sample of African Americans to determine these reasons, in what he called “one of the most comprehensive analyses to date of racial socialization strategies among African Americans” (p. 237). Among other questions, respondents were asked whether “in raising your children, have you done or told them things to help them know what it means to be Black.” They were also asked whether “there are any other things you’ve done or told your children to help them know how to get along with White people.”
In his major results, Shelton found that respondents were more likely to practice racial socialization if they were older, female, and living outside the South; if they perceived that racial discrimination was a growing problem and were members of civil rights or other organization aimed at helping African Americans; and if they had higher incomes.
These results led Shelton to conclude that “African Americans are not a culturally monolithic group,” as they differ in “the parental lessons they impart to their children about race relations” (2008, p. 253). Further, the parents who do practice racial socialization “do so in order to demystify and empower their offspring to seize opportunities in the larger society” (p. 253).
Shelton’s study helps us to understand the factors accounting for differences in racial socialization by African American parents, and it also helps us understand that the parents who do attempt to make their children aware of U.S. race relations are merely trying, as most parents do, to help their children get ahead in life. By increasing our understanding of these matters, Shelton’s research has helped make a difference.
The reason we turn out much like our parents, for better or worse, is that our families are such an important part of our socialization process. When we are born, our primary caregivers are almost always one or both of our parents. For several years we have more contact with them than with any other adults. Because this contact occurs in our most formative years, our parents’ interaction with us and the messages they teach us can have a profound impact throughout our lives, as indicated by the stories of Sarah Patton Boyle and Lillian Smith presented earlier.
The ways in which our parents socialize us depend on many factors, two of the most important of which are our parents’ social class and our own biological sex. Melvin Kohn (1965, 1977) found that working-class and middle-class parents tend to socialize their children very differently. Kohn reasoned that working-class parents tend to hold factory and other jobs in which they have little autonomy and instead are told what to do and how to do it. In such jobs, obedience is an important value, lest the workers be punished for not doing their jobs correctly. Working-class parents, Kohn thought, should thus emphasize obedience and respect for authority as they raise their children, and they should favor spanking as a primary way of disciplining their kids when they disobey. In contrast, middle-class parents tend to hold white-collar jobs where autonomy and independent judgment are valued and workers get ahead by being creative. These parents should emphasize independence as they raise their children and should be less likely than working-class parents to spank their kids when they disobey.
If parents’ social class influences how they raise their children, it is also true that the sex of their children affects how they are socialized by their parents. Many studies find that parents raise their daughters and sons quite differently as they interact with them from birth. We will explore this further in Chapter 11 “Gender and Gender Inequality”, but suffice it to say here that parents help their girls learn how to act and think “like girls,” and they help their boys learn how to act and think “like boys.” That is, they help their daughters and sons learn their gender (Wood, 2009). For example, they are gentler with their daughters and rougher with their sons. They give their girls dolls to play with, and their boys guns. Girls may be made of “sugar and spice and everything nice” and boys something quite different, but their parents help them greatly, for better or worse, turn out that way. To the extent this is true, our gender stems much more from socialization than from biological differences between the sexes, or so most sociologists probably assume. To return to a question posed earlier, if Gilligan is right that boys and girls reach moral judgments differently, socialization matters more than biology for how they reach these judgments.
As the “Learning From Other Societies” box illustrates, various cultures socialize their children differently. We can also examine cross-cultural variation in socialization with data from the World Values Survey, which was administered to almost six dozen nations. Figure 4.1 “Percentage Believing That Obedience Is Especially Important for a Child to Learn” shows the percentage of people in several countries who think it is “especially important for children to learn obedience at home.” Here we see some striking differences in the value placed on obedience, with the United States falling somewhat in between the nations in the figure.
Learning From Other Societies
Children and Socialization in Japan
This chapter ends with the observation that American children need to be socialized with certain values in order for our society to be able to address many of the social issues, including hate crimes and violence against women, facing it. As we consider the socialization of American children, the experience of Japan offers a valuable lesson.
Recall from Chapter 2 “Eye on Society: Doing Sociological Research” that Japan’s culture emphasizes harmony, cooperation, and respect for authority. Socialization in Japan is highly oriented toward the teaching of the values just listed, with much of it stressing the importance of belonging to a group and dependence, instead of individual autonomy and independence. This is especially true in Japanese schools, which, as two sociologists write, “stress the similarity of all children, and the importance of the group” (Schneider & Silverman, 2010, p. 24). Let’s see how this happens (Hendry, 1987; Schwalb & Schwalb, 1996).
From the time they begin school, Japanese children learn to value their membership in their homeroom, or kumi, and they spend several years in the same kumi. Each kumi treats its classroom as a “home away from home,” as the children arrange the classroom furniture, bring in plants and other things from their own homes, and clean the classroom every day. At recess one kumi will play against another. In an interesting difference from standard practice in the United States, a kumi in junior high school will stay in its classroom while the teachers for, say, math and social science move from one classroom to another. In the United States, of course, the opposite is true: teachers stay in their classrooms, and students move from one room to another.
Other practices in Japanese schools further the learning of Japanese values. Young schoolchildren wear the same uniforms. Japanese teachers use constant drills to teach them how to bow, and they have the children repeatedly stand up and sit down as a group. These practices help students learn respect for authority and help enhance the sense of group belonging that the kumi represents. Whereas teachers in the United States routinely call on individual students to answer a question, Japanese teachers rarely do this. Rather than competing with each other for a good grade, Japanese schoolchildren are evaluated according to the performance of the kumi as a whole. Because decision making within the kumi is done by consensus, the children learn the need to compromise and to respect each other’s feelings.
Because the members of a kumi spend so much time together for so many years, they develop extremely close friendships and think of themselves more as members of the kumi than as individuals. They become very loyal to the kumi and put its interests above their own individual interests. In these and other ways, socialization in Japanese schools helps the children and adolescents there learn the Japanese values of harmony, group loyalty, and respect for authority. If American children learned these values to a greater degree, it would be easier to address violence and other issues facing the United States.
Figure 4.1 Percentage Believing That Obedience Is Especially Important for a Child to Learn
Source: Data from World Values Survey, 2002.
The family is perhaps the most important agent of socialization for children. Parents’ values and behavior patterns profoundly influence those of their daughters and sons.
Randen Pederson – Family – CC BY 2.0.
Schools socialize children in several ways. First, students learn a formal curriculum, informally called the “three Rs”: reading, writing, and arithmetic. This phase of their socialization is necessary for them to become productive members of their society. Second, because students interact every day at school with their peers, they ideally strengthen their social interaction skills. Third, they interact with authority figures, their teachers, who are not their parents. For children who have not had any preschooling, their teachers are often the first authority figures they have had other than their parents. The learning they gain in relating to these authority figures is yet another important component of their socialization.
Functional theorists cite all these aspects of school socialization, but conflict theorists instead emphasize that schools in the United States also impart a hidden curriculum by socializing children to accept the cultural values of the society in which the schools are found. To be more specific, children learn primarily positive things about the country’s past and present; they learn the importance of being neat, patient, and obedient; and they learn to compete for good grades and other rewards. In this manner, they learn to love America and not to recognize its faults, and they learn traits that prepare them for jobs and careers that will bolster the capitalist economy. Children are also socialized to believe that failure, such as earning poor grades, stems from not studying hard enough and, more generally, from not trying hard enough (Booher-Jennings, 2008; Bowles & Gintis, 1976). This process reinforces the blaming-the-victim ideology discussed in Chapter 1 “Sociology and the Sociological Perspective”. Schools are also a significant source of gender socialization, as even in this modern day, teachers and curricula send out various messages that reinforce the qualities traditionally ascribed to females and males, and students engage in recess and other extracurricular activities that do the same thing (Booher-Jennings, 2008; Thorne, 1993).
Schools socialize children by teaching them their formal curricula but also a hidden curriculum that imparts the cultural values of the society in which the schools are found. One of these values is the need to respect authority, as evidenced by these children standing in line.
When you were a 16-year-old, how many times did you complain to your parent(s), “All of my friends are [doing so and so]. Why can’t I? It isn’t fair!” As this all-too-common example indicates, our friends play a very important role in our lives. This is especially true during adolescence, when peers influence our tastes in music, clothes, and so many other aspects of our lives, as the now-common image of the teenager always on a cell phone reminds us. But friends are important during other parts of the life course as well. We rely on them for fun, for emotional comfort and support, and for companionship. That is the upside of friendships.
The downside of friendships is called peer pressure, with which you are undoubtedly familiar. Suppose it is Friday night, and you are studying for a big exam on Monday. Your friends come by and ask you to go with them to get a pizza and a drink. You would probably agree to go with them, partly because you really dislike studying on a Friday night, but also because there is at least some subtle pressure on you to do so. As this example indicates, our friends can influence us in many ways. During adolescence, their interests can affect our own interests in film, music, and other aspects of popular culture. More ominously, adolescent peer influences have been implicated in underage drinking, drug use, delinquency, and hate crimes, such as the killing of Charlie Howard, recounted at the beginning of this chapter (Agnew, 2007) (see Chapter 5 “Social Structure and Social Interaction”).
After we reach our 20s and 30s, our peers become less important in our lives, especially if we get married. Yet even then our peers do not lose all their importance, as married couples with young children still manage to get out with friends now and then. Scholars have also begun to emphasize the importance of friendships with coworkers for emotional and practical support and for our continuing socialization (Elsesser & Peplau, 2006; Marks, 1994).
Our peers also help socialize us and may even induce us to violate social norms.
The Mass Media
The mass media are another agent of socialization. Television shows, movies, popular music, magazines, Web sites, and other aspects of the mass media influence our political views; our tastes in popular culture; our views of women, people of color, and gays; and many other beliefs and practices.
In an ongoing controversy, the mass media are often blamed for youth violence and many other of our society’s ills. The average child sees thousands of acts of violence on television and in the movies before reaching young adulthood. Rap lyrics often seemingly extol very ugly violence, including violence against women. Commercials can greatly influence our choice of soda, shoes, and countless other products. The mass media also reinforce racial and gender stereotypes, including the belief that women are sex objects and suitable targets of male violence. In the General Social Survey (GSS), about 28% of respondents said that they watch four or more hours of television every day, while another 46% watch two to three hours daily (see Figure 4.2 “Average Number of Hours of Television Watched Daily”). The mass media certainly are an important source of socialization unimaginable a half-century ago.
Figure 4.2 Average Number of Hours of Television Watched Daily
Source: Data from General Social Survey, 2008.
As the mass media socialize children, adolescents, and even adults, a key question is the extent to which media violence causes violence in our society (Surette, 2011). Studies consistently uncover a strong correlation between watching violent television shows and movies and committing violence. However, this does not necessarily mean that watching the violence actually causes violent behavior: perhaps people watch violence because they are already interested in it and perhaps even committing it. Scholars continue to debate the effect of media violence on youth violence. In a free society, this question is especially important, as the belief in this effect has prompted calls for monitoring the media and the banning of certain acts of violence. Civil libertarians argue that such calls smack of censorship that violates the First Amendment to the Constitution, whole others argue that they fall within the First Amendment and would make for a safer society. Certainly the concern and debate over mass media violence will continue for years to come.
One final agent of socialization is religion, discussed further in Chapter 12 “Aging and the Elderly”. Although religion is arguably less important in people’s lives now than it was a few generations ago, it still continues to exert considerable influence on our beliefs, values, and behaviors.
Here we should distinguish between religious preference (e.g., Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish) and religiosity (e.g., how often people pray or attend religious services). Both these aspects of religion can affect your values and beliefs on religious and nonreligious issues alike, but their particular effects vary from issue to issue. To illustrate this, consider the emotionally charged issue of abortion. People hold very strong views on abortion, and many of their views stem from their religious beliefs. Yet which aspect of religion matters the most, religious preference or religiosity? General Social Survey data help us answer this question (Figure 4.3 “Religious Preference, Religiosity, and Belief That Abortion Should Be Legal for Any Reason”). It turns out that religious preference, if we limit it for the sake of this discussion to Catholics versus Protestants, does not matter at all: Catholics and Protestants in the GSS exhibit roughly equal beliefs on the abortion issue, as about one-third of each group thinks abortion should be allowed for any reason. (The slight difference shown in the table is not statistically significant.) However, religiosity matters a lot: GSS respondents who pray daily are only about half as likely as those who rarely or never pray to think abortion should be allowed.
Figure 4.3 Religious Preference, Religiosity, and Belief That Abortion Should Be Legal for Any Reason
Source: Data from General Social Survey, 2008.
- The ways in which parents socialize children depend in part on the parents’ social class and on their child’s biological sex.
- Schools socialize children by teaching them both the formal curriculum and a hidden curriculum.
- Peers are an important source of emotional support and companionship, but peer pressure can induce individuals to behave in ways they might ordinarily regard as wrong.
- The mass media are another important agent of socialization, and scholars debate the effect the media have on violence in society.
- In considering the effects of religion on socialization, we need to distinguish between religious preference and religiosity.
For Your Review
- Describe one important value or attitude you have that is the result of socialization by your parent(s).
- Do you agree that there is a hidden curriculum in secondary schools? Explain your answer.
- Briefly describe one example of how peers influenced you or someone you know in a way that you now regard as negative.
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