Gender roles in toddlers/children

So this morning, I couldn’t sleep at all.  I woke up at 4 and couldn’t fall back asleep. After lying there for inordinate period of time, I decided to get myself out of bed and get ready for the day because it now takes me about double the time to get ready as it did before (thanks ankle!). I came downstairs, actually got my own coffee for the first time in nearly two months, put on the World Cup and began reviewing blogs.

While at (which is a great blog!), I found this article by Horetense on gender roles in toddlers. There were particular parts of the post that stood out for me:

But going through a pink princess period and engaging in gender-specific birthday celebrations and the like might not be entirely helpful, from a developmental standpoint, according to Lise Eliot, the author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps – and What We Can Do About It. As Eliot tells Helena de Bertodano of the Times of London, the brains of boys and girls aren’t really that different after all; it’s the social conditioning they receive that makes them pick up and internalize gender roles. “Everything is filtered through a lens of whether you believe boys and girls are hard-wired. I don’t think your average person appreciates that differences in the brain can be learnt.”

And this part too:

Eliot’s work is reflected in a study recently published in Sex Roles, which surveyed 80 families and “looked at differences in the way play and caregiving were initiated verbally, and how the participants responded – also verbally – to this initiation, for mother-son, mother-daughter, father-son and father-daughter combinations,” by placing toddlers in a one-on-one situation with their parents for snack-time interaction and play-time interaction. Researchers found that toddlers of both genders showed similar communication methods during snack time, but picked up on cues given by their parents during play time, as fathers tended to encourage assertive behavior while mothers encouraged cooperation and fairness. According to the authors of the study: “It would appear that children in the same family have different experiences in their play interactions with their mothers and fathers. Such differences may teach children indirect lessons about gender roles and reinforced gender typed patterns of behavior that they then carry into contexts outside of the family.”

It’s really interesting – I took a fair mix of history, women’s studies and psychology classes when I was in college. My major was history with a concentration of women’s history, so I could ended up taking a lot of classes in the women’s studies department. In order to get into the higher level classes that I needed for my major, I took a class entitled The Social Constructions of Gender, which looked specifically at how American society constructs gender and tries to compare it to the biological aspects of sex. And I would have to agree that a lot of the behavior that we attribute to “sex” – aggression, whatever – are really learned behaviors.

Nate is now 2 and a half. He’s been in daycare since he was around 3 months old and boy does he love his cars and trains.  But he also carries around his dolls, specifically a baby doll with him, everywhere that he goes. While we’re at home with him, we try not to discourage him from doing things or trying things because it isn’t “male” behavior. Nate has his cars and trucks, but he also has a kitchen set that my sister got him for his birthday/Christmas. He also sees both Izzy and I cook and Izzy takes a lot of responsibility for taking care of him too but I’m sure he gets a lot of cues from his friends at daycare about male and female behaviors.  And we all know how school itself can be, especially when they get into middle and high school.

But then I ask myself – “do I unconsciously exhibit a learned gender role without even realizing that I do so?” It’s totally possible that I do and I don’t even know it.  Is it too late to undo the behaviors in Nate?  Should I be more conscious about what I’m doing?  I think that I definitely need to be more conscious about learned gender behavior because I think that some of it can be very hurtful – for instance, why is it ok for women to be super skinny? Why is it ok for a woman to allow a guy to walk all over her? Why is it ok for someone to think that another person’s feelings are worth nothing (which I sometimes think happens because women’s voices aren’t heard as loudly or given as much credence – “she’s just emotional right now”).  I don’t want Nate to think it’s ok to treat other people that way or to act that way.


5 thoughts on “Gender roles in toddlers/children

  1. Male or female, I think it’s important to teach our kids respect of ALL people, manners, patience, understanding, perspective, etc. Andrew loves pink. That’s cool with me. Have you ever read It’s a Boy? One of my fav books by lots of smart women. Great perspectives on gender roles.

    When a nurse came to our house a few months ago, she spotted Andrew’s kitchen and said “you have a little girl?” It totally shocked me – I never even imagined that a kitchen was girl-ish. Andrew loves cooking. My husband cooks more than I do.

  2. Male or female, I think it’s important to teach our kids respect of ALL people, manners, patience, understanding, perspective, etc. Andrew loves pink. That’s cool with me. Have you ever read It’s a Boy? One of my fav books by lots of smart women. Great perspectives on gender roles.

  3. I think that you and Izzy are pretty (I’m going to make up my own word now) gender-unspecific in your own behaviors around the house. You both care for him- dress him, bathe him, kiss his boo-boos. You both cook, you both clean. You both go to work in a professional environment. There is no “daddy’s job”, “mommy’s job”- and that’s a good thing. However, there are differences in the way males and females communicate, and differences in the way we react to things and problem solve. Maybe not across the board, but these things are apparent in your home as well as countless others. These are the things you can be aware of. Not to try to erase those differences, but to teach Nate to respect those differences. Truthfully, can you react more emotionally from time to time? Yes! But that should not mean that your opinions or ideas, or wisdom, are any less valuable than any man’s. Nate should learn to respect women for all that they are, and learn that those differences do NOT make them the weaker sex.

    • I agree that we don’t have mommy/daddy jobs. I agree that there are differences in communicationg, but I think that we’re socialzied in part to communicate in different ways based upon our gender/sex. i haven’t read anything awhile on scientific studies about biology and gender behavior, but I do have a book waiting to be read called Blue Brain/Pink Brain about the differences in gender that may go into that a little bit more. I think that i’m pretty convinced that we’re socialized to act some ways – women as more emotional (crying etc.) men not so much. As an example, I remember visiting you guys recently and Max started crying about something and you said something along the lines of “Dont’ cry. Act like a boy – boys don’t cry.” Granted maybe not those exact words, but that’s the message that came across and I think Max picked up on it because he stopped crying right away. That’s more of a socialization thing than a biological thing. So I just wonder how much of our reactions and how we communicate are biologically based (are male brains really all that different than female brains) or based upon how male/female reactions are defined by society and then taught to us.

  4. Actually, I tell ALL of my kids, “I don’t want to hear you cry unless you’re bleeding!” Its kind of a family joke, and partly I can’t stand whiners of any gender. Its a bit harsh, but that’s my style. I never said anything about him being a boy. And I know that for sure, because the phrase I just mentioned is the same one I use all the time. (I have two of each for those who may read this.)

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