Encouraging Healthy Gender Roles in Children
Thinking flexibly about gender benefits our children, both now and in their future. Here are ways to encourage a healthy understanding of gender roles.
Gender role flexibility is the ability to adapt our behavior to a given situation without being confined by the “shoulds” for our gender. When we feel free to choose from the most socially desirable elements of both stereotypical masculinity (e.g., assertiveness, leadership, and independence) and femininity (e.g., care, concern, and nurturance), we can be a full and vibrant person regardless of our gender. It’s no wonder, then, that gender role flexibility has been linked to many psychological benefits, including greater well-being and more intimate relationships.
Children’s understanding of gender roles develops early in life, so we need to offer balanced depictions from the start. Studies have indicated that they are capable of creating gender-based categories for toys and activities as early as ten months of age: infants stare longer when objects like footballs and shoes aren’t presented with the “right” gender, after those objects were repeatedly shown with a male or female face. Furthermore, they can demonstrate active knowledge of gender roles around two years of age, choosing female dolls to do stereotypically feminine tasks like rocking a baby and vacuuming and male dolls to do stereotypically masculine tasks like fixing a car and rough-and-tumble play.
Where do their concepts of gender roles come from, and what can we do to support flexible thinking in our kids?
Be mindful of what we’re modeling
One of the major ways children learn gender roles is by simply watching us. When they grow up seeing their mom always doing the laundry or their dad always taking out the garbage, it’s easy for them to think that those activities “belong” to certain genders – especially when they’re also depicted that way in books, television, and movies.
Even if we go against gender stereotypes in our homes, we may still be encouraging rigid thinking about gender roles. I recently realized that that’s what is happening in my household when our 8-year-old daughter expressed amazement that I could, in fact, cook. My husband and I have strictly delegated tasks based on our interests, strengths, and availability…apparently too strictly! Although our task delegation largely runs counter to gender role stereotypes because I’m the breadwinner and he’s a stay-at-home dad, our rigidity means that our kids see each of us doing the same activities over and over. There’s no win for flexibility when we make that kind of choice.
Notably, single parents and same-sex couples have a leg up in this regard, typically offering examples of “doing it all” regardless of gender. That can create real challenges for the parents, of course, but children do tend to be have more flexible gender roles due to the exposure.
Choose varied activities
It’s tempting to enroll our kids in only gender-stereotypical activities, especially if they’re the ones asking for these activities and their friends are all signing up, too. There’s certainly nothing wrong with a “princess dance camp” for our daughters (mine went three years in a row) or a pirate club for our sons, but we need to stay mindful of the opportunities we’re passing by in the process. Is Lego Club at the local library automatically discounted as an option for our daughter? Or is pick-and-paint pottery not even on our list of weekend activities we’d consider with our son?
Taking a look at all of the available clubs, camps, after school, and family activities that are available and trying to give some of the counterintuitive ones a shot is a healthy recipe for building gender role flexibility. Maybe your kiddo will dislike the activity after all, but at least he or she will be evaluating it on its merits.
Consider what we are (and are not) reinforcing
Even if we’re exposing our children to a variety of gender role options through our behavior and their activities, we may be sending signals of encouragement or disinterest that could be undermining our efforts. For instance, if a person believes that dance is only for girls – even if she believes this implicitly, outside of her conscious awareness – she might not ask her son about his dance class, hurry along his conversation when he spontaneously brings it up, and be “too busy” to come watch him practice in the living room. This lack of reinforcement could cause him to gradually focus on activities that she does encourage through her attention and interest. Dance will likely eventually fall by the wayside. If the parent does this with a variety of gender incongruent activities, she may eventually be left feeling clueless about how her child ended up “so gender stereotypical” when she exposed him to “everything available.”
That said, I will defend all of us parents by noting that gender stereotypical interests do seem to have biological influences, too. Having a child of each gender myself, I sure can attest to that (I never rode so many elevators and escalators until I had my mechanically-obsessed son!).
Young relatives matter
It’s not just mom and dad who present gender role concepts to kids: siblings also play an important part in the process. When children have an older sibling who is the opposite gender, the younger siblings are less likely to have stereotypical ideas about gender roles than children who only have siblings of the same gender. This is probably again due to exposure to a broader range of activities and interests.
What if you have one child or a brood of kids all of the same gender? While research hasn’t extended beyond the immediate family, it stands to reason that spending frequent quality time with cousins of the opposite gender may have a similar impact as time spent with siblings.
All in all, seeing the breadth of behavior that individuals can display makes kids more flexible in many regards, including, importantly, in their thoughts about gender roles.
More on raising confident kids
The words we use can impact girls’ confidence, ability to think and reason, and goals for their futures. See our article on Raising confident girls by watching what we say.
Countless studies have found that traditional masculinity is harming our boys and society, See our article on Avoiding harmful effects of traditional masculinity on our boys.