Judi Mesman and Marleen Groeneveld at Leiden University in the Netherlands recently reviewed research on how parents influence children’s socialization to gender roles. This conditioning of early childhood has long-term influences on children’s social development.
Parents in Western societies generally deny that they stereotype their children by gender. Research has found that this is particularly true in more gender-egalitarian societies, where promoting gender stereotyping is more likely to be frowned on.
When it comes to general parenting practices in early childhood – being warm, being sensitive and applying parental control – differences in the treatment of boys and girls are small. Yet differences appear in “implicit” parenting practices. As soon as a child is identified as a boy or a girl, parents form expectations about the child’s interests, skills and behaviors, and these expectations appear in gendered parenting practices. Mesman and Groeneveld define gendered parenting thus:
“From the decision to paint a baby’s room pink or blue onward, many parents take their young children’s sex as a guiding principle for minor and major socialization decisions regardless of their children’s individual characteristics and behaviors. This is referred to as gendered parenting – the messages children receive from their parents related to how boys and girls should and should not behave.”
The authors define two types of implicit gendered parenting in early childhood: (1) direct messages conveyed to the child about his or her own behavior and (2) indirect commentary on the behavior of others.
Direct gender messages to sons and daughters during early childhood
Much research has examined how parents choose films, books and commercial products differently for boys and girls, even if these parents do not endorse gendered messages explicitly. When parents consistently buy female-stereotyped toys such as dolls and tea sets for their daughters, or male-stereotyped toys such as trains and dinosaurs for their sons, they implicitly link their children’s sex to gender roles. These roles are encouraged as the children play with the toys in different ways.
Parenting may also respond differently to disruptive behaviour in boys and girls. Studies have shown that mothers respond less negatively to a son’s risky and disruptive behavior and are less likely to encourage a son’s prosocial behavior. This is consistent with the stereotype that boys are risk takers and challenging, but girls are nice to others.
Indirect messages to the child about the behavior of others
When researchers observed parents reading books with their toddlers, they found that mothers tended to comment more positively about drawings of children doing stereotypical activities than about those doing the opposite. Fathers commented even more often than mothers to confirm gender stereotypes. Fathers with two boys made fewer negative comments about drawing of boys being mean than about drawings of girls being mean. In the same study, both mothers and fathers were more likely to label sad children as female and angry children as male, even though the children were drawn in a gender-neutral way.
Parents also convey indirect messages during early childhood via how the household is organised. They may model stereotypical male and female behaviour in the way they divide work, care and housework. Because children generally identify more with the parent of their own sex, they are motivated to imitate that parent’s interests and activities.
Biology or nurture?
Researchers acknowledge that biological factors are involved. For example, boys are more physically active in general during early childhood, and parents’ greater use of physical force with boys may reflect this.
However, researchers also observe that parents apply gender stereotypes early in children’s lives, before many differences appear. A now classic piece of research showed that adults treated babies dressed in blue and in pink differently, regardless of their sex.
Parents from different social and cultural backgrounds also approach parenting differently., with people from lower-income backgrounds being more likely to endorse traditional gender roles. Few studies have looked at non-Western cultures or ethnic-minority families, however.
Parents’s beliefs and actions in relation to children’s socialization to gender roles
Research has shown that parents with stronger gender stereotyped beliefs are more likely to parent in gendered ways. In one study with toddlers, fathers with more stereotypical gender attitudes used more physical control with sons than with daughters.
The difference between what parents say against stereotyping and do in favour of it could be deliberate subterfuge, or they could genuinely be unaware of it. In the pink/blue baby experiment, for example, the parents did not realise they were treating the babies differently.
What is the impact of gendered parenting on children’s social development?
The primary source of social learning in early childhood is interaction with parents. Researchers refer to “vicarious social learning” – when talking about their own actions and behaviors, children pick up on parents’ gender evaluationss. Children notice salient social models of gendered behavior around them.
Children then use these ideas and expectations and apply them in similar situations. For example, a girl who has imitated her mother doing housework is more likely to assume that housework is for girls when playing, and then assume that chores are for girls in other settings.
Research shows that gender-stereotyped parenting in early childhood has an influence later in life. Children from families with traditional gender roles are more likely to have gender-stereotypical expectations themselves.
In the study referred to above, fathers who had more gender-stereotyped beliefs were more likely to use more physical control with their boys than with their daughters and this predicted more aggression in their sons than in their daughters.
Is a gender-stereotypical early childhood upbringing good or bad?
The authors discuss the impacts of gender-stereotypes in early child upbringing. One could argue that gendered parenting teaches children about the reality of gender role expectations in their social environment, preparing them for later life. On the other hand, if children are raised on the basis of gender rather than their abilities, talent may be wasted and and may be forced into lifestyles and careers that deny personal identities, which also affects well-being. These factors are likely to play out differently in different cultures.
Mesman J & Groeneveld MG (2018), Gendered parenting in early childhood: subtle but unmistakable if you know where to look, Child Development Perspectives, 12.1