Children learn very early, within the home, what it means to be a boy or a girl. Susan D. Witt, Ph.D from the University of Akron School of Home Economics and Family Ecology says,
"Through a myriad of activities, opportunities, encouragements, discouragements, overt behaviors, covert suggestions, and various forms of guidance, children experience the process of gender role socialization."
A child's earliest exposure to what it means to be male or female comes from parents. Children internalize parental messages regarding gender at an early age, with awareness of adult sex role differences being found in two-year-old children. One study found that children at two and a half years of age use gender stereotypes in negotiating their world and are likely to generalize gender stereotypes to a variety of activities, objects, and occupations.
Parents encourage their sons and daughters to participate in sex-typed activities, including doll playing and engaging in housekeeping activities for girls and playing with trucks and engaging in sports activities for boys. Children's toy preferences have been found to be significantly related to parental sex-typing , with parents providing gender-differentiated toys and rewarding play behavior that is gender stereotyped. While both mothers and fathers contribute to the gender stereotyping of their children, fathers have been found to reinforce gender stereotypes more often than mothers (Ruble, 1988).
A study of children's rooms has shown that girls' rooms have more pink, dolls, and manipulative toys; boys' rooms have more blue, sports equipment, tools and vehicles (Pomerleau, Bolduc, Malcuit, & Cossette, 1990). Boys are more likely than girls to have maintenance chores around the house, such as painting and mowing the lawn, while girls are likely to have domestic chores such as cooking and doing the laundry (Basow, 1992). This assignment of household tasks by gender leads children to link certain types of work with gender.
So if research suggests that parents are the primary influence on gender role development during the early years of life how can dads be better at not reinforcing out dated gender roles in the home?
Encourage "androgynous parenting."
For instance, why can't dad bake the cookies for the PTA meeting and do the dishes half the time? For that matter, why can't mom be the one who repairs the family car or mow the lawn?
Focus on egalitarian values.
Witt says, "Children whose mothers work outside the home are not as traditional in sex role orientation as children whose mothers stay home. In fact, preschool children whose mothers work outside the home experience the world with a sense that everyone in the family gets to become a member of the outside world, and their sense of self includes the knowledge that they have the ability to make choices which are not hindered by gender."
Expand the range of activities for each gender.
Boys and girls who play together tend to engage in more varied activities. When they're playing with children of the opposite sex, boys may be more likely to participate in creative make-believe games or to practice their fine motor skills with art projects. Girls who regularly play with boys may spend more time outdoors, building their bodies through vigorous exercise.
Reinforce behaviors that shatter stereotypes.
Rather than rule out certain stereotypical behaviors, make a point of reinforcing those that challenge the stereotype. For example, you might tell your daughter, "I love to see you in the sandbox" or "Wearing pants today was a good idea -- it'll be so much easier to climb the monkey bars." A father may tell a son in tears, "Sometimes I feel like crying too."
Question all generalizations.
Encourage your child to deal with other kids as individuals in specific situations rather than as representatives of their gender. "If, for example, your son comes home complaining, 'Girls are so stupid!' try saying something like 'It sounds like you're angry at someone. Who are you angry at?' " Dr. Levin suggests. Janice Garfinkel, a teacher in South Bellmore, New York, constantly tries to probe generalizations in her classroom. "In preschool, the girls tell the boys, 'Pretend you're the dad and it's time for you to come home from work. I'm the mom and I'm taking care of the baby.' I always ask the kids, 'Do you know any moms who go out to work each day?'"
Tune in to your own biases.
Moms and dads themselves, of course, may be clinging to outmoded stereotypes, in both their thinking and their actions. "Parents should review their behavior to make sure they're not doing or saying anything that feeds into something harmful," says Charles Flatter, Ph.D., a professor of human development at the University of Maryland, in College Park. "Boys and girls both need to be shown that there are alternatives to the classic stereotypes."
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