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Theoretical Overview of Gender Socialization

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Young People
Wordcount: 5475 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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What is the meaning and intent behind this rhyme? What types of messages are given with a rhyme to children? How children internalize these messages?

What are little boys made of?

Frogs and snails and puppy dog tails

That’s what little boys are made of.

What are little girls made of?

Sugar and spice and all that’s nice.

That’s what little girls are made of.

(Marchbank & Letherby, 2007).

Immediate after the birth, children are surrounded with environmental input from the society in which they grow up, peers and teachers they interact, media, books and parents related to their gender and roles attributed to their gender. Those messages and social cues tell children there are two ways of existing (Marchbank & Letherby, 2007).

Children are surrounded with environmental in-put about gender from family, peers, and the media. At the same time, they make their own attempts to understand the world and to form categories that help organize it. Gender provides one convenient way for them to accomplish this cognitive organization. In addition, society suffuses the gender distinction with affect, making gender what is perhaps the most salient (Eckes and Trautner, 2000).

Gender is seen as a categorical system made up of many levels. Although at the most fundamental level, it is defined by physiology as biological differences between the sexes, on the basis of their sexual anatomy; it usually refers to social, cultural and psychological rules and traits linked to males and females through particular social context.

Gender Identity is defined as individual’s experience oh himself or herself as masculine or feminine and one of the strongest components of socialization is the development of gender identity. Gender identity, an aspect of self-concept, develops in childhood, learned early and well (Richardson & Simpson, 1982).

The acquisition and modification of children’s gender roles, attitudes, and social behaviors related to gender, are regulated by many factors, including the values of social class to which they belong, interaction with peers and teachers, exposure to behavior and standards through mass media and especially parents and their parenting styles are the most principle and most influential agents in children’s gender socialization process (Mussen, et al, 1979).

In the fallowing part, the influences of parents will be discussed; however, it is needed to look at theoretical overview of gender role development to understand the role of parents in detail.

Theoretical Overview of Gender Socialization

All theories of gender role development focus on primary socialization and deal with how children learn gender identity, at the time they become aware of two sexes having different gender roles and acting differently. Gender socialization and gender role development are influenced by a variety of significant elements such as biology, social constitutions and social interaction and personality. Different theories bring different point of look and understanding to these each element (Lindsey, 2005).

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Biological accounts of gender differences have been popular in recent years by focusing on the hormonal and genetic factors. Physical differentiation of two sexes and differentiation of sex organs are determined due to the sex hormones and chromosomes. Here, starting at the conception, it could be said that hormones play a role in sex differentiation between male and female bodies, but it is not at all (Marchbank and Letherby, 2007).

Biological theories of sex differences indicate that hormone activity as biological events are viewed as producing psychological and cognitive differences between sexes in terms of being nurturance or aggressiveness. For example, the changes in the mood of women during the menstrual cycle are seen as result of the hormone levels in their blood or the level of testosterone becomes a common explanation used to explain aggressive and hostile behaviors (Burr, 1998).

However, there are also studies in literature rejecting the effects of hormones on the differences of behaviors among the females and males. Monozygotic twins sharing 100% of identical genes have been analyzed in terms of the similarities and differences in their behaviors. Mitchell and his colleagues resulted that genes can explain from 20% to 48% of the differences among the behaviors, but environmental factors have a greater role in the range of 52%- 80% of differences (Helgeson, 2005).

When the attention is drawn on the studies of testosterone hormone, according to the study of Brannon, both males and males involved in criminal activities and the relationship between aggressiveness and violence can not be solely depending on the testosterone level in men (Brannon, 2005). Similar to the results of Brannon, according to a study conducted with prisoners, college students and psychiatric patients, it is found that there was no positive correlation between hostility and testosterone levels (Burr, 1998).

Additionally to these findings, the level of testosterone should not be associated with males, rather in a study; there is a correlation between increased testosterone levels of female students and improved performance on tests for spatial abilities. However, the improvement is not due to the presence of testosterone, rather it is related to relative level of testosterone seen as determinant character of optimal performance (Smith, 2007).

When the attention has been turned to the brain studies to explain sex differences in cognition and behaviors of females and males, again paradoxical explanations can be seen in that era. Although, some argue that differential brain lateralization contributes differently to the emotional and cognitive functions of two sexes, the findings are not satisfactory to explain gender role differences (Hetherington & Parke, 1993).

Different areas of brain have been playing different roles in terms of different cognitive functions. It is believed that right-hemisphere dominated male brain makes men superior in the spatial abilities, while women are good at verbal and language skills because of the lateralization of their brain which is left-hemisphere (Marchbank and Letherby, 2007).

However, in a study, damage to the right-hemisphere related to spatial skills influenced both men and women. Hiscock and colleges concluded that the differences among two sexes because of the brain specialization are very small with 1 and 2 % variability (cited in Helgeson, 2005).

Besides, it is reviewed that right-hemisphere is more emotional half of the brain. So, if women are left-hemisphere and men left-hemisphere dominated how women are seen as more emotional than men (Lindsey, 2005).

When it is generally looked at the literature of brain studies and biological theories, it should be said that the evidences are contradictory and those studies supporting the influences of biology on the gender differences suffer from methodological inadequacies. Therefore depending on the theories of many researches on the issue of gender socialization, it is assumed that biology alone can not be thought as determinant gender roles and gender differences in behavior and cognition. However, those biological theories draw attention of the theorist to explain the reasons of variability in the behaviors of men and women. That is why it is needed to focus on social-situational and cognitive factors while investigating the process of gender role development.

To begin with the psychoanalytic theory, Freud in his theory, talked about a series of stages playing role in the development of personality and third stage focused on the development of gender roles (Helgeson, 2005). In the third stage called as “phallic”, Freud described the role family environment where children engage in the process of identification with mother’s feminine virtue of love and nurturance and with father’s masculine strengths of discipline and rules. That means phallic stage is the starting point that boys and girls discover their genitals and they realize that only boys have penises which leads both boys and girls to view girls as inferior.

Due of the desire of opposite-sex parent, oedipal complex, boys fear castration, because father figure is seen as source of threat and fear. Boys, at this stage, overcome their castration anxiety, by giving up sexual attraction for their mother and by identifying with their fathers (Eckes and Trautner, 2000). For girls, the resolution of Electra complex with the meaning of being sexually attracted to their fathers is not completely resolved in the same way that the oedipal complex of boys resolved. Freud was not clear explaining girls’ identification with their mothers. For girls, anxiety occurs because of the penis envy, realization of girls that they do not have a penis and they blame their mothers for anatomic deficiencies. Therefore, girls want to attract their fathers which lead them to handle conflict, Electra complex, by identifying with their mothers and transferring their energies to make themselves attractive towards their fathers (Smith, 2007).

Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, however, has been criticized on a number of grounds. One of them is that it is not possible to evaluate thoughts and actions by sexual instincts of unconscious mind from a scientific standpoint. That means it is difficult to verify objectively, whether girls suffer from penis envy or boys from castration anxiety. Another criticism comes from feminist theories due to the Freudian thoughts related to penis envy and castration anxiety. Karen Horney, a feminist psychologist, pointed out the importance of social forces as determinant of gender identity rather than biology. Horney, believed that penis envy experienced by girls, does not reflect an actual adoration to have a penis; rather it is envy of power and social status attributed to men (Brannon, 2005).

On the other hand, psychoanalytic theory has been criticized by many researchers of not considering any outside influences such as parents, peers or media (Matlin, 1987). Margret Mahler’s and Nancy Chodorow’s “Object-relation Theory” grew out of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, but it emphasized the importance of early relationship in establishing gender identity. Like Freud although they stressed the importance of sexuality, Mahler and Chodorow believed that rather than unconscious process, family structure and children’s early experiences have an important role in shaping their gender socialization (Helgeson, 2005).

Besides Parson mentioned that Freudian psycho-analytic theory is needed to be modified by pointing out on the development of social roles of children. In his model, Parson emphasized that children learn the male and female roles by playing roles of other family members. Girls learn how to be a mother, or boys learn how to be a father by observing what is expected of individuals who enact roles. According to Parson, gender development of children is the result of learning by mastering of prescribed roles (Eckes and Trautner, 2000).

Unlike psychoanalytic theory of Freud emphasizing anatomic human drives in the role of socialization, social learning theory should focus on external events controlling children’s behaviors and the theory also posited that defining factors which promote gender socialization come from the social world. It is assumed by behaviorists that appropriate behaviors have been learned directly through reinforcement or indirectly through observation and imitation (Burr, 1998).

Depending on operant-conditioning theory, different expectations lead to different reinforcement from parents, teachers or other agents such as television programmes, books, comics including a rich source of symbolic models reinforcing stereo-typical behaviors for females and males. They reinforce children for behaviors which are thought appropriate to their gender and such social pressures serve to condition gender-typed behaviors such as for girls playing with dolls or for boys playing with balls. Children by this way, learn that gender appropriate behaviors which are reinforced with praise and gender inappropriate behaviors which are scolded by punishment (Smith, 2007).

On the other hand, Albert Bandura, social learning theorist, explained the process of socialization of children emphasizing the role of observation and imitation. Parents are seen as primary figures who are imitated and viewed as role models by children. Throughout the time they spent with their parents, children first discriminate gender-typed behavior patterns, then they make generalization of what they have learned to new situations and they performed similar to what they acquired from their observations of their parents. As a result, girls become feminine and boys become masculine by imitating similar models, because society rewards them to behave in particular way (Marchbank and Letherby, 2007).

However, like psychoanalytic theory, social-learning theory has been criticized in many ways. Depending on the first criticism, a girl can be rewarded for a masculine activity, such as being a basketball player; however they keep a tight hold on other aspects of feminine role. That means rewarding or punishing a behavior does not always lead children to behave in desired way. Besides, social learning theory underestimate the importance of social changes such as increasing number of single or divorce family environments where adults take on a range of non-traditional roles. Lastly, and the most apparent critique towards social learning theory is that it’s view of children passive recipients of rewards and punishment and it fails to explain children who are quite rigid about constructing their personal version of gender roles (Lindsey, 2005).

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Unlike social learning theory, cognitive developmental theory views children as primary agent of his or her own gender role socialization by pointing out the importance of cognitive skills as determinants of selecting role models. Building his theory of Piaget’s work, the most and the first influential cognitive-developmental theory of sex typing were proposed by Kohlberg. According to him, as children have developed intellectually, they become able to understand the world in terms of categories, including gender categories. The starting point of comprehending the world of child is self-realization which is distinguishing each individual from others. To acquire all aspects of self-realization, children develop their gender identity by observing and labeling behaviors of males and females and translating those sex-typed behaviors at the age six where gender constancy is in place. After that time, to develop their self-esteem, same-sex attitudes, occupations and activities are seen as “good” by children (Serbin, et. al., 1993).

Kohlberg’s cognitive developmental model of sex typing has been influential since it gives importance to children’s active roles in determining gender-based value system. However, like other theories, there are some limitations in cognitive developmental model. It is criticized since there is a problem to understand the sequence in this model whether gender identity or children’s understanding of gender constancy comes first. According to theory, gender constancy should be acquired before children start to develop a gender-based value system fitting their gender role. However, studies stress that there are children who can not acquired gender constancy, become aware of sex-typed behaviors and integrate them in their lives (Lindsey, 2005).

On the other hand, the theory fails to explain why sex such dominant category rather than race, religion, or even hair color. Therefore, to understand why children become sex-typed, rather than race or religious typed, and why priority is given to gender schemas, it is needed to look at the Gender Schema Theory (Marchbank and Letherby, 2007).

Like Kohlberg, Sandra Bem, mentioned children categorize their social world along gender lines and their desire is to develop an identity which is consistent of social expectation. However, Bem, as mentioned above as shortcoming of cognitive developmental theory is only has valid explanation for the development of gender identity, not other variables such as eye color, race or culture (cited in Serbin, et. al., 1993). Depending on this theory, schemas are cognitive structures used to grasp the knowledge about the world, take perception and process new information. Gender schema includes information related to what being male or female means and what kinds of behaviors, cognitions, attitudes and emotions associated with those gender-related schemas. Children first learn what their gender is and they realize that there are significant differences related to each gender. This knowledge which children acquire by the sex-differentiated social messages, leads them to the information of gender schema (cited in Smith, 2007).

Like Kohlberg and Piaget, Bem agreed with the view of children as being primary agent of his/her own sex-role socialization, however, unlike those theorists, she emphasized the role of society as providing information used by individuals to acquire gender roles (Bem, 1983).

Gender schema theory is the combination of the elements of social learning theory and cognitive developmental theory. When it is looked at the philosophy of social learning theory, it talked about how individuals acquire the different characteristics of female and male gender categories and what kinds of characteristics are associated with those categories. On the other hand, cognitive developmental theory also explains how children start to encode new information and how the accommodate this information into the schemas and categories maintain consistency. Besides, as an answer to the question of why sex-typed categories are dominant, Bem believes that gender is more salient and significant and society assigns to the category of gender a broad functional significance (cited in Helgeson, 2005).

In short, gender schema theory indicates that every culture includes assumptions about certain characteristics within personalities of individuals. Sandra Bem used the term “cultural lenses” to define culture’s values, beliefs and norms and due to the influences of those cultural norms and forces, without questioning and altering them, children accept to organize their world (Bem, 1983).

When it is considered biological, social-learning, cognitive developmental and gender-schema theories, it could be concluded that each theoretical perspective has a number of problems. Although some of them focus on the environmental forces affecting gender identity, some others mentioned the importance of self-cognitive functioning as determinant issue of developing sex-typing behavior, but in fact, none fully explains gender identity acquisition and gender typing. However, generally, all these theories, offer productive avenues to explain gender role socialization. Now, it is needed to move the attention to sociologically based explanations accounting for primary socializing agents who play an important role on attitudes and behaviors of children regarding gender (Lindsey, 2005).

Parent’s Expectation and Children’s Gender Role Socialization

Within the aim of this paper, it is expected to find the answers to the questions of do parents provide different socialization for their girls and boys and do they have different expectations from them?

Numerous studies on this issue reveal that by modeling traditional roles and encouraging sex-typed activities, parents influence children’s gender role socialization. (Fagot, 1974).

Even starting before birth, mothers give sex-appropriate meaning to the activity of fetus. If fetus moves actively by kicking, mothers define this sign as the child will become more likely male than female (Lewis, 1972).

Mothers and fathers have different expectations from their sons and daughters leading children’s’ gender role socialization depending on their values, attitudes and beliefs which are differentiated for girls and boys. To support this differentiation, a study was conducted with 1200 mothers and fathers from different cultural backgrounds to see how children socialize differently in terms of their gender in family environment. The results reveal that parents emphasize on their sons’ competition, autonomy, achievement and they support sex appropriate behaviors of their sons compared to girls. When parent-daughter relationships have been examined, parents concern warmth and closeness in the relationships with girls (Block, 1973).

The study conducted by Pomerantz and Ruble also the relationships between attitudes of parent in use of control on their children and children’s’ self-evaluation. When it is looked at the outcomes of the research, parents are more controlling with their daughters rather than their sons and they give more autonomy to boys rather than girls. Children’s self-evaluation analysis also indicates that girls outperform boys in school and they have fewer behavioral problems, but on the other hand, they are more vulnerable to anxiety, depression compared to boys. The authors believe that parents’ differentiation of use of control with girls and boys is influential factor in their socialization (Pomerantz & Ruble, 1998). Supporting the claims of Pomerantz and Ruble, Goshen-Gottstein mentioned that supporting dependency of boys rather than girls, mothers believe that boy should be autonomous (cited in Lindsey et.al.,1997).

Similar to the findings of those studies and observation mentioned above, depending on the research of Lewis about the interaction between parents and child and expectation of parents, mothers believe that boys should be independent and autonomous than girls and hence they show more proximal behaviors such as touching, holding, or rocking to support their sons to explore their world. On the other hand, mothers look at the eyes of their girls and talk to their daughters more than they do with their sons as part of distal mode of behaviors (Lewis, 1972).

Apart from mothers who spent a great deal of their time with both their sons and daughters, when the literature on parenting has been discovered, it is concluded that fathers play primary role in socialization process of their sons especially. A study done by Rothbart and Maccoby parents’ differential reactions towards their sons and daughters have been analyzed. Fathers have been seen to be potent constructor of the understanding of gender for their children. More likely than mothers, they encourage more traditional gender specific behaviors in their son. They empathize more with them and support independency and autonomy for their sons, rather than girls (Rothbart & Maccoby, 1966).

Besides, fathers have higher expectations for their sons and they give more emphasis on their sons’ achievement and occupational attainment rather than the success and carriers of their girls. (Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974).

As indicated above, due to their different expectations from their sons and daughters, parents reflect their values, beliefs and desires towards their attitudes, communication types and relationships with their children influencing their understanding of the world in a gender-schematic process.

Clothes and Arrangement of Children’s Rooms

Most parents know the sex of their baby before birth and design child’s room accordingly. It is not surprising to see boys’ rooms are covered with educational and art materials, sport equipments, toy animals and vehicles, while girls’ rooms consist of dolls, house-keeping toys, and floral furnishings. In a study conducted by Rheingold and Cook, parent’s furnishing rooms of their sons and daughters has been examined and thought as providing index to their ideas about appropriateness by sex and their different attitudes towards their children. 96 children between the ages of 1 and 71.6 months are the sample of the study. The result of the study reveals that parents design differently the rooms of their daughters and sons with different styles of furnishing and toys. The boys’ rooms involve more vehicles, and toys supporting motor abilities of children, while girls’ rooms are full of with domestic equipments and toys of home encouraging nurturance and concern with fashion. According to authors, some of the differences were more apparent and impressive than expected. In girls’ rooms, there are not vehicle toys such as wagons, boats or buses which can be frequently found in boys’ rooms. On the other hand, almost total absence of baby dolls and domestic equipments can be observed in boy’s rooms seen in Table II (Rheingold & Cook, 1975).

According to authors of this study, the differences in parents’ furnishing of the rooms of their daughters and sons can be associated in other classes of their behavior towards their girls and boys (Rheingold & Cook, 1975).

Color-coded and gender-typed clothing of children are widespread and parents choose gender appropriate colors when dressing their children. While they prefer pink, yellows clothing and clothes in pastel tones with embroidered hearts and flowers for their girls, for sons, dark colors such as brown, blue or red clothes with superhero and athletic motives are preferred. According to social learning theory mentioned above, children receive strong messages from their parents related to their gender and by those positive reinforcement associated with their clothing, toys selection and room arrangement, they start to learn what is or not gender appropriate (Lindsey, 2007).

Communication and Interaction Differences with Children

Differences in the behavior of boys and girls are associated with the differences how parents behave toward them (Rheingold & Cook, 1975). Numerous studies indicate that parents play a pivotal role in shaping children’s gender role development by interacting and using different communication types with their sons and daughters. The conversation styles of parents with their children are seen as persuasive socialization mechanisms through which gender roles are conveyed to children (O’Brien & Shinn, 2008).

In a study conducted by Horan and with his colleagues, the aim is to investigate the differences among the communications between mother-daughter, mother-son, father-daughter and father-son dyads. Depending on the collected results of dyads, it is concluded that mothers communicate with their daughters by giving more feminine gender role messages compared to their sons. Similarly, when it is looked at the results of father-son dyads, it can be said that fathers encourage their sons to communicate in masculine styles by sending more masculine messages than they did to their girls. Fathers perceive their sons as being self-reliant, dominant, aggressive, competitive and ambitious than their daughters (Horan et.al, 2007).

In another study, fathers have been found to play with their newborn sons and talk them more when compared to their daughters. Besides, when father’s interaction with their girls has been examined, the result shows that they are more gently cuddle to their newborn daughters, while physically rough to their sons (Fagot, 1974).

According to the study conducted by Mussen and Rutherford (1963), masculinity of young boys is closely associated with the nature of father-son relationship. That means appropriate sex-role preferences in boys directly correlated with nurturing, affective relationship with their fathers who strongly motivate them towards masculine behaviors. On the other hand, by acting in feminine ways, participating with their daughters in girls’ game such as housekeeping, mothers become a feminine role model by encouraging their girls to act in the expected ways (Mussen & Rutherford, 1963).

More recently, a meta-analysis has been conducted about how parents behave towards their sons and daughters. Siegal (1987), concluded that mothers and fathers treat differently and the apparent differences has been found in the era of physical involvement. That means both mothers and fathers participated in physical activities with their boys and they were more strict, and restrictive with them (cited in Helgeson, 2005).

Similar to those studies, in another research of O’Brien and Shin, they aimed to discover differences in communication styles between mothers and fathers engaged in conversation with a 9-year-old son or daughter. They put two types of communication styles characterized differently for men and women. Assertive communication styles consist of characteristics which are directing attention of others, controlling whole conversation by influencing ideas of others and even interrupting the conversational partner and this style is thought as reflecting men’s power and status in the society. On the other hand, affiliative communication which is considered to reflect lack of power of women in society is characterized by concentration on other person through conversation, focusing on other’s ideas and expecting involvement from partner. The results of the study indicate that fathers use more assertive communication styles and mothers were more affiliative through conversation. In this study, sex of child has an important role of use of each communication styles. When the powerful status of males and even male children have been considered in society, according to authors, it is not surprising that both mothers and fathers used more affiliative speech with their boys to support their power and dominancy (O’Brien & Shinn, 2008).

Besides those studies, in another study, the frequencies of mothers and fathers parenting behavior with their sons and daughters have been examined. Depending on the results of the study, mothers engage in personal interaction with their daughters rather than their son and similar results of fathers with their sons. According to the authors, traditional gender stereotypes children acquire are the consequences of differential parenting of girls and boys by their mothers and fathers (Moon & Hoffman, 2008).

Play and Toys Selection

In the socio-emotional domain, children develop through the expansion of their social network, from the early relationship with their parents to relationship including other people, especially peers. In this step of the socialization process, play becomes most powerful agent for the formation of peer relationships (Smith, 2007).

When the developmental literature has been discovered, consistent findings indicate that children prefer playing with traditionally stereotyped toys for their own sex more than toys stereotyped for the other sex (Martin et.al., 1995). While boys tend to be more active and show higher interest in rough-and-tumble play, girls mostly prefer playing with dolls in the dramatic play (Thorne, 2005).

Even starting very early in their lives, children show sex-differences in terms of play and toys selection. Depending on the study of Goldberg and Lewis, 13 month olds, 32 girls’ and boys’ behaviors in free play, their interaction with mothers and mothers’ responses to their infants have been observed. Results indicate that boys and girls reflect striking differences in terms of interaction with mothers, toys and styles of their play. When it is looked at their play styles, girls select toys appropriate for fine motor coordination rather than gross motor abilities. In contrast girls, rather than sitting on the floor, boys are more active by rolling the landowner over toys seen in picture below. Considering maternal behavior of mothers showing differentiation between girls and boys in terms of touching, vocalization and response to their play, author concluded that parents catalyze sex-role appropriate behaviors of children by reinforcing sex-typed activities (Goldberg & Lewis, 1969).

Parents are the first agent who enact traditionally prescribed sex role


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