The Influence of Peers on Children’s
Socialization to Gender Roles
Susan D. Witt, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
The University of Akron
215 Schrank Hall South
Akron, Ohio 44325-6103
     As children move through childhood, there are many environmental influences on their socialization to adult roles.  These influences include parents, school, the media, and peers. Peer relationships play an important role in the development of a child’s self concept and have a strong impact on how children view the roles of males and females in our society.  The perpetuation of gender biases and stereotypes is often begun in the home and then further reinforced by the peer group.  This overview of literature dealing with the influence of peers on children’s gender role socialization suggests that strict adherence to traditional gender roles, while limiting to children, is strongly encouraged by the peer group and is reinforced by parents, schools, and the media.
     Major influences on gender role socialization include parents, the media, school, and peers.  Parents have an impact on their children’s gender role identity in many ways.  Through day-to-day interactions, by acting as role models, by reinforcing the larger messages of society, and by offering approval or disapproval of the child’s actions and behaviors, parents express their own values and thus exert much influence on how their children view the roles of males and females.  The impact of the media on children has been much discussed in recent years.  From thousands of hours of viewing television, watching movies, and reading print, children receive messages about gender roles from yet another influential source.  As children enter school, the input of teachers and the school curriculum regarding gender roles cannot be overlooked.  Finally, as children develop friendships with both same-sex and opposite- sex peers, they continue to develop new ideas and receive reinforcement of previously learned ideas.  Figure 1 below illustrates how these influences work together to help define a child’s self concept.

         Figure 1 about here

     Gender role socialization, which almost always includes some degree of gender role stereotyping, begins at birth.  As children grow and develop, the gender stereotypes they are exposed to at home are reinforced by other elements of their
environment and are thus perpetuated throughout childhood (Martin, Wood, & Little, 1990).   The child’s burgeoning sense of self, or self concept, is a result of the multitude of ideas, attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs that he or she is exposed to.  The information that surrounds the child and which the child internalizes comes to the child within the family arena through parent-child interactions, role modeling, reinforcement of desired behavior, and parental approval or disapproval (Santrock, 1994).  As children move into the larger world of friends and school, many of their ideas and beliefs are reinforced by those around them.  A further reinforcement of acceptable and appropriate behavior is shown to children through the media.  From all of these socialization agents, children learn gender stereotyped behavior.  As children develop cognitively, these gender stereotypes become firmly entrenched beliefs.  It has been suggested that children develop gender stereotypes in three stages:
            1. Learning what types of things are associated with each
                  sex (i.e., boys play with cars, girls play with dolls).
            2. Learning associations for what is relevant to their own
                  sex but not the opposite sex.
            3. Learning the associations relevant to the opposite sex
                  (Martin, Wood, & Little, 1990).

The learning of these associations is accompanied by a change in the quality of associations as the child gets older, as indicated by more stereotypic judgments being made by older children (Martin, Wood, & Little, 1990).

Peer Influence

     It has been said that peer interaction is not a preparation for life, it is  life itself  (Lamb & Sutton-Smith, 1982).  Social interactions among children are a major area in which gender role development takes place (Maccoby, 1988).  Certaining peer group influence is strong among elementary school age children, and the formation of friendships is crucial to the development of a child’s self concept.  As children move away from being involved primarily in family interactions to the larger environment of neighborhood and school, friends become increasingly important as tools to measure oneself by.  Functions of friendship have been defined as:
          1. A staging area for behavior.
          2. Cultural institutions that provide didactic training.
          3. Providing a context for growth of a social self.  The child can learn
               the appropriate self image to project in social situations (Fine in
               Handel, 1988).
    When children are at play, it may seem as if they are engaged in aimless, unstructured behavior, but there is something much deeper than that going on, as indicated by these functions.  The first function suggests that behaviors are  tried out  on friends, and if they are rewarded, they will continue; if not, they will cease.  Thus, the little boy who enjoys having tea parties with his teddy bears and is jeered at or otherwise discouraged from this activity by friends who call it  sissy  behavior, will probably stop engaging in this type of play.
      The second function continues that idea by indicating that friendship is organized in our culture in order to teach children some of what they need to know in order to fit into society.  The third function is in agreement with Cooley’s idea of the  looking glass self  - making a determination of who you are based on your perception of how others think of you (Gittler, 1957).
    Characteristics of the peer group as a means of socialization include the following:
          1. Children participate in making the rules rather than having
              rules handed down by adults.
          2. The shorter time perspective than with family or school means gratification from the group is more immediate.
          3. The peer group provides an alternative to adult standards
              and adult authority (Handel, 1988, p. 17).

These characteristics or functions of the peer group become more and more salient to children as they move through childhood.  A child’s social interactions with persons his or her own age is a highly significant socialization factor (Handel, 1988).  It is deliciously satisfying to children to find that they have control over and input into their world.  Through the making up of rules for games and activities, the receiving of immediate feedback from friends, and the understanding that peers have standards which may be different from adults, children move toward a further understanding of self.  Taking the role of the generalized other within one’s peer group means the child develops an understanding that the views and beliefs of other folks are important and are salient to the child’s own sense of self (Handel, 1988; Mead, 1934).
    While very young children engage in play activity with children of either sex, as early as the preschool years children receive positive reinforcement from their same gender peers for engaging in gender typed activities (Martin, 1989).  This gender differentiated reinforcement continues throughout childhood, with elementary school aged children playing in same gender groups more than ten times as often as in mixed gender groups (Maccoby, 1988).  Encouragement from peers to enact traditional gender role behaviors has been found to be an even stronger reinforcer than adult reinforcement for young children (Katz & Walsh, 1991).  Adult reinforcement is more effective for older children because they picture themselves as moving more toward adulthood than still being in childhood (Katz & Walsh, 1991).  Katz & Walsh also found that children who witness nontraditional behaviors which are reinforced will imitate those behaviors more than children who witness the same behaviors but see no reinforcement.  This is an example of social learning theory in action.
    Peer groups perpetuate gender typed play and interaction, with boys and girls engaging in gender divided play that gives gender related messages about sexuality and aggressiveness (Thorne, 1993).  Examples of this are children playing games such a  girls chase the boys  and activities such as boys snapping the bras of the girls (Thorne, 1993).

     Boys and girls have different styles of play and interaction from one another.  Boys choose more rough and tumble play and competitive activities than girls.  Girls state that they don’t enjoy this type of play, while boys state that they find girls’ style of play boring (Lundgren & Cassedy in Berryman-Fink, et al, 1993; Maccoby, 1988).  Often, girls and their activities are seen as inferior to boys and their activities.  One study of elementary school students found that children in the second grade perceive girls to be inferior to boys with this belief being even stronger by the time the students are in the sixth grade (Safir, Hertz-Lazarowitz, BenTsvi-Mayer, & Kupermintz, 1992).
    Another study posed this essay question to fourth grade students:  How would your life change if you were the other sex?   Girls wrote essays about having adventures and achieving greatness, but many boys were not even able to answer the question.  One boy wrote that if he were a girl, he would kill himself (Sandler in Feder- Feitel, 1994).  This is a disturbing and sad commentary on the socialization of children to accept and reinforce gender bias.
    The skills and abilities children learn from friends are different for boys and girls.  In peer interactions, a boy learns how to negotiate conflict and be a  team player  - one of the guys.  Girls are more likely to communicate one-on-one and learn the skill of listening (Tannen, 1990; Lever, 1976).  It is suggested that boys and girls use language in different ways, with males using language to preserve independence and maintain a hierarchical social order and females using language to establish rapport (Tannen, 1990).  Boys initiate more conflicts than girls and are more likely to solve those conflicts with physical aggression or threats (Miller, Donahar, & Forbes, 1980).  Children tend to not like aggressive girls, and girls are likely to be shunned when acting aggressively (Fagot & Leinbach, 1983).  Ironically, many of the characteristics that are discouraged by the peer group for girls (i.e., assertiveness, decisiveness, independence) are valued by society as a whole and are often the characteristics that are cited as being necessary for career success as an adult.

     Feedback from friends on gender appropriate behaviors and attitudes is important to children, and children seek out same sex friends because of their need to establish gender identity (Beal, 1994).  Boys are quick to take opportunities to distinguish themselves from girls (Paley in Beal, 1994).  The male peer group defines what is not male at an early age and those behaviors are discouraged or not used (Fagot, 1985).
    There appear to be differences in the ways that boys and girls approach friendship.  Boys seem to need to establish status with a group of buddies; girls are more likely to create intimate friendships with one or two close friends (Beal, 1994).  Boys also appear to be more sensitive than girls to peer feedback on what constitutes appropriate masculine activities (Fagot & Leinbach, 1983).  Within their same sex playgroups, children punish those who deviate from gender appropriate activities by making critical remarks or ignoring the friend (Beal, 1994; McAuliffe, 1994).
    While it is suggested that children become less rigid in their gender stereotyping as they mature (Huston, 1983), it has also been found that, as they move through childhood, boys have an increased preference for male stereotyped activities.  Girls have not been found to have the same preference for female stereotyped activities (Carter & Patterson, 1982).
    It is more acceptable among children’s peer groups for girls to be  tomboys  than for boys to be  sissies  (Kaplan, 1991).  This seems to indicate that masculine behaviors are valued more highly by children.  Because masculine behaviors are indicators of higher self esteem in children than feminine behaviors, this may indicate that the cultivation of an androgynous orientation may be particularly beneficial for girls (Bem, 1981).


     Because peer groups have a strong influence on the gender role socialization of children, and because gender stereotypes are reinforced by parents, school, and the media, children often grow up with a sense of self that is based on outdated or unrealistic ideas of what it is to be male or female.  A child’s friendships are important contributors to the development of self concept.  When those friendships require adherence to strict gender stereotypes, they are limiting to children and perpetuate unfairness to some children.  Since children reinforce the ideas about gender that they receive in the home, parents who desire fairness and equal treatment for their children - daughters as well as sons - would do well to examine their own biases and behaviors.  By encouraging gender fair behavior and behaving in a gender fair way, parents would set a positive example for their children.  Their children would then be better able to behavior in a non-gender stereotyped manner when interacting with their peers, thus discouraging gender biased behavior among peers and encouraging fairness for all children.


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