“â€¦Sugar and Spice and everything nice, that’s what little girls are made of.” Society today has made a clear cut line about what is appropriate for a little boy and what is appropriate for a little girl. Society has made that distinction through gender stereotyping. If you walk into a preschool class room today, little girls will be playing dress-up with fairy and princess costumes while the boys will be tackling each other or playing with dump trucks. Even though many people believe that gender is not learned, but instinctual instead, there may be outside influences on gender roles that children fall victim to, for example parents influence gender roles by the language they use and media and toys reinforce gender stereotypes in children by character portrayal and advertisements.
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There are many different parenting styles that are seen today. Psychologist Diana Baumrind discovered four basic styles of parenting; authoritarian, permissive-indifferent, permissive-indulgent, and authoritative (Morris, 310). Regardless of the parenting style that one family opts for, there seems to be a common thread; the majority of parents will dress little boys in blue and little girls in pink. The thought process behind this is so that their gender can be identified properly by an outside source. No parent wants to be walking through a store with their little boy and have a stranger ask, “How old is she?” Interestingly enough however, according to the article “What’s Wrong with Cinderella?” author Peggy Orenstein points out “when colors were first introduced to the nursery in the early part of the twentieth century, pink was considered the more masculine hue, a pastel version of red. Blue, with its intimations of the Virgin Mary, constancy and faithfulness, was thought to be dainty.” Somewhere along the line, the reverse was thought true; pink was more feminine and blue was more masculine, and is so “enforced” by today’s standards.
Another example of how strongly parents influence gender was learned when an experiment was performed at Harvard University. Male babies were dressed in pink outfits and were then given to adults to handle under the impression that they were girls. The language used with the boy babies dressed in pink fell into the female stereotype, while the girl babies dressed in blue fell into the male stereotype, being called handsome and tough (Pruett). Language is a big influence on gender interpretation. Often we tell boys not to cry and explain things with different tones for boys versus girls. If a little girl hits a friend, parents/caregivers might use a gentler phrase like, “gentle hands on your friends please.” If a little boy hits a friend, parents/caregivers might just shrug the action off as “Boys will be boys” as the common saying goes or raise their voices to get the point across more strongly, “We DO NOT hit our friends!”
Even the compliments that adults bestow upon children can be gender stereotyping. When you tell a little a girl how pretty she looks in her dress is an illustration of that. Parents lead by example. Their children learn behavior from what they see their parents doing, even if unintentional. If a child sees their mother as the one who always does the laundry and cooks the meals and the father as the one who always takes the trash out, then chances are that the child will follow the same roles when as they grow up.
Media also plays a large part in where children learn about what their gender role is. Disney movies are a prime example of this. In these movies, the leading female character, usually a princess, is sweet, romantic, daydreams about Prince Charming, and almost always wears a dress in a pastel color. On the other hand, the same Disney movie can represent the male population watching with a prince, who is usually strong, willing to fight, and always gets the girl at the end. These characters often lead to a misconception of what is feminine and what is masculine. On the spectrum of gender identity, Disney may represent the extremes of what the appropriate gender role is.
Advertisements are often seen using gender as a marketing strategy for toys or games. If you look at a commercial for Tonka Trucks, there won’t be a little girl to be seen in these ads. However, if you see a commercial for Easy-Bake oven, the opposite will be true. There will be no boys in those commercials. Seeing these on television demonstrates to children what should be an appropriate toy for a little boy and what should be appropriate for a little girl. Even the behaviors of children portrayed in television advertisements are stereotypic. Boys are often seen as active and domineering while the girls are portrayed as shy or overly silly.
These advertisements usually lead to the purchase of the toys shown for the sex it was targeted to. Parents often wonder if you give a baby doll to a little boy or a dump truck to a little girl, will they be gender confused. Even the most new-age parents might find it bizarre to see their little boys walking around preschool with a purse and in dress shoes. Boys have a harder time crossing the gender line, whereas some parents of females might think that it’s alright for their daughters to play with dump trucks or Legos. This does not mean that the son will be more feminine and the daughter will be a tom-boy, but a majority of parents do not want to risk that.
Not everyone believes, however, that gender is strictly a learned behavior. In 2009, Texas A&M University used eye tracking software to measure infant’s interest in either “male” or “female” toys (Shaffer). According to an article published in 2010, the author M. Fox, found the results to be extremely informative:
Hormone levels in the saliva, as well as finger dimensions that indicate prenatal testosterone exposure were measured to see if these things could explain why the infants visually preferred certain toys over others. The results revealed that while the girls’ preferences weren’t affected by hormone levels at all, the boys’ preferences were affected by both current and prenatal hormone levels. It appears that the higher the presence of testosterone at the time of the test, the greater the preference for groups of figures over individual figures, and those who indicated a higher exposure to prenatal testosterone had a stronger preference for the ball over the doll.
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This means that the boys showed an optical penchant for gender specific toys. In an article in New Scientist, Linda Geddes states that research has been done to show that the introduction of changing levels of testosterone and estrogen while babies are in utero may also have some sway in which toys boys and girls pick.
There are other theorists that believe that there is a cognitive connection to gender development. Carol Lynn Martin and Diane Ruble are two such theorists. They discuss Kohlberg’s theory of gender development is and what the impact is of knowing your gender does not change. This is an important fact for children to learn, generally setting the concepts of what is ‘correct’ behavior for your gender type. Martin and Ruble think that there are important cognitive themes for gender development, rather than the influence of a specific outside source.
The first important theme discussed is “The Emergence of Gender Identity and Its Consequences.” In this stage, it is allegedly general knowledge that children understand that there are two different types of genders, and they have the realization that they fall into one of those two categorizing sexes. This first theme is then broken down into two sub-categories, “Evaluative Consequences” and “Motivational and Informational Consequences.” The former meaning that the child understands and identifies one group as their own and sees this group as a positive. The latter sub-category means that one the child picks a gender to identify with and while the want to understand the opposite sex dwindles, the individual seems only interested it their own gender identity.
The second theme that is thought to be a cognitive gender identity link is “Active, Self-Initiated View of Gender Development” and the final theme is “Developmental Patterns.” In these two themes, the thought is that the main focus is learning about the social gender group that they most identify with, and forming and developing the characteristics that are most familiar with the identified gender. While exploring the cognitive connection to gender, many place a strong association to motivational significances and developmental configurations of the gender identity theory.
Even though many theorists believe that gender is not a learned behavior, but you are born knowing the difference between ‘appropriate’ male behaviors and toys and ‘appropriate’ female behaviors and toys, others disagree. Those people state that there are many possible outside influences on children when they are learning their gender roles in society. Some also believe that being aware of specific gender stereotypes has a connection to how one behaves. The media and toys that children do see and use play an intricate part in the concept of gender roles and parents influence gender identity by using specific language and actions. Whether or not gender is identity is solely obtained by influence or is pre-determined by some cognitive connection, it is an intriguing issue. Should boys and girls be able to make the choice of the toy that they want to play with or what their favorite color is going to be regardless of what society claims is “normal”? With the role that parents or caregivers play in gender role identification, they should learn different methods for breaking stereotypes. Adults could make sure that they use the same language for both sexes or become involved in activities such as cuddling with boys or wrestling with girls. Connecting children of both sexes in such a manner is a good way to encourage the cycles of gender stereotyping to end.