Parental Influence on Children's Socialization to Gender Roles
Adolescence, Summer, 1997

Susan D. Witt, Ph.D
University of Akron
School of Home Economics and Family Ecology
215 Schrank Hall South
Akron, Ohio 44325-6103

In a society which is rife with gender stereotypes and biases, children regularly learn to adopt gender roles which are not always fair to both sexes. As children move through childhood and into adolescence, they are exposed to many factors which influence their attitudes and behaviors regarding gender roles. These attitudes and behaviors are generally learned first in the home and are then reinforced by the child's peers, school experience, and television viewing. However, the strongest influence on gender role development seems to occur within the family setting, with parents passing on, both overtly and covertly, to their children their own beliefs about gender. This overview of the impact of parental influence on gender role development leads to the suggestion that an androgynous gender role orientation may be more beneficial to children than strict adherence to traditional gender roles.

Children learn at a very early age what it means to be a boy or a girl in our society. 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. It is difficult for a child to grow to adulthood without experiencing some form of gender bias or stereotyping, whether it be the expectation that boys are better than girls at math or the idea that only females can nurture children. As children grow and develop, the gender stereotypes they are exposed to at home are reinforced by other elements in their environment and are thus perpetuated throughout childhood and on into adolescence(Martin, Wood, & Little, 1990).

A 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 for desired behaviors, 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, in particular, television. Through all these socialization agents, children learn gender stereotyped behavior. As children develop, these gender stereotypes become firmly entrenched beliefs and thus, are a part of the child's self concept.

Parental Influence
A child's earliest exposure to what it means to be male or female comes from parents (Lauer & Lauer, 1994; Santrock, 1994; Kaplan, 1991). From the time their children are babies, parents treat sons and daughters differently, dressing infants in gender specific colors, giving gender differentiated toys, and expecting different behavior from boys and girls (Thorne, 1993). One study indicates that parents have differential expectations of sons and daughters as early as 24 hours after birth (Rubin, Provenzano, & Luria, 1974).

Children internalize parental messages regarding gender at an early age, with awareness of adult sex role differences being found in two-year-old children (Weinraub, Clemens, Sachloff, Ethridge, Gracely, & Myers, 1984). 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 (Fagot, Leinbach, & O'Boyle, 1992; Cowan & Hoffman, 1986). Children even deny the reality of what they are seeing when it doesn't conform to their gender expectations (i.e., a child whose mother is a doctor stating that only men are doctors) (Sheldon, 1990).

Sons have a definite edge as far as parental preference for children is concerned. Most parents prefer male children to female children throughout the world (Steinbacher & Holmes in Basow, 1992, p. 129). Also, people who prefer sons are more likely to use technology for selecting the sex of their child (Steinbacher & Gilroy, 1990). This preference for male children is further emphasized by the finding that parents are more likely to continue having children if they have only girls than if they have only boys (Hoffman, 1977).

Reasons given by women for their preference for sons are to please their husbands, to carry on the family name, and to be a companion to the husband. Reasons for wanting daughters include having a companion for themselves and to have fun dressing a girl and doing her hair (Hoffman, 1977).

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 (Eccles, Jacobs, & Harold, 1990). Children's toy preferences have been found to be significantly related to parental sex-typing (Etaugh & Liss, 1992; Henshaw, Kelly, & Gratton, 1992; Paretti & Sydney, 1984), with parents providing gender-differentiated toys and rewarding play behavior that is gender stereotyped (Carter, 1987). 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.

Some studies have suggested that parent shaping as a socializing factor has little impact on a child's sex role development (Lytton & Romney, 1991; Maccoby & Jacklin, 1980). Other research, however, suggests that parents are the primary influence on gender role development during the early years of life (Santrock, 1994; Miller & Lane in Berryman-Fink, Ballard-Reisch, & Newman, 1993; Kaplan, 1991). Because socialization is a two-way interaction, each person in the interaction influences the other (Lewis & Rosenblum, 1974); thus, parents and children engage in reciprocal interaction, with children both responding to behaviors and eliciting behaviors (Kaplan, 1991). Also, development is influenced by many social factors and children may best be understood in terms of their environment (Bronfenbrenner, Alvarez, & Henderson, 1984).

Many studies have shown that parents treat sons and daughters differently (Jacklin, DiPietro, & Maccoby; Woolett, White, & Lyon; and Parke & O'Leary, in Hargreaves & Colley, 1986; Snow, Jacklin, & Maccoby, 1983; Power, 1981). The parent-child relationship has effects on development that last well into adulthood. Because of these long-lasting effects, the parent-child relationship is one of the most important developmental factors for the child (Miller & Lane in Berryman-Fink, et al., 1993).

Parental attitudes towards their children have a strong impact on the child's developing sense of self and self-esteem, with parental warmth and support being key factors for the child (Richards, Gitelson, Petersen, & Hartig, 1991). Often, parents give subtle messages regarding gender and what is acceptable for each gender - messages that are internalized by the developing child (Arliss, 1991). Sex role stereotypes are well established in early childhood. Messages about what is appropriate based on gender are so strong that even when children are exposed to different attitudes and experiences, they will revert to stereotyped choices (Haslett, Geis, & Carter, 1992).

Benefits of Androgynous Gender Role Orientation
While there may be some benefit to adhering to strict gender role stereotypes (i.e., providing a sense of security, facilitating decision making), there are also costs involved in the maintenance of gender role stereotypes. These costs include limiting opportunities for both boys and girls, ignoring talent, and perpetuating unfairness in our society (Beal, 1994). Parents who espouse an egalitarian attitude regarding gender roles are more likely to foster this attitude in their children. Androgynous individuals have been found to have higher self esteem (Lundy & Rosenberg, 1987; Shaw, 1983, Heilbrun, 1981), higher levels of identity achievement (Orlofsky, 1977), and more flexibility in dating and love relationships (DeLucia, 1987).

Children who have parents with strong egalitarian values tend to be more knowledgeable about nonsex-typed objects and occupations than other children (Weisner & Wilson-Mitchell, 1990). Children whose mothers work outside the home are not as traditional in sex role orientation as children whose mothers stay home (Weinraub, Jaeger, & Hoffman, 1988). 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 (Davies & Banks, 1992).

Families with one or more androgynous parent (i.e., a mom who repairs the family car or a dad who bakes cookies for the PTA meeting) have been found to be highest on scores of parental warmth and support. These androgynous parents are found to be highly encouraging regarding achievement and developing a sense of self worth in sons and daughters (Sedney, 1987; Spence & Helmreich, 1980). Because of the strong influence of parents on gender role socialization, those parents who wish to be gender fair and encourage the best in both their sons and their daughters would do well to adopt an androgynous gender role orientation and encourage the same in their children.


Arliss, L. P. (1991).  Gender communication.  Englewood
      Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Basow, S. A. (1992).  Gender stereotypes and roles, 3rd ed.
      Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.
Beal, C. (1994).  Boys and girls: The development of gender
      roles.  New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.
Berryman-Fink, C., Ballard-Reisch, D., & Newman, L. H. (1993).
      Communication and sex role socialization.  New York:
      Garland Publishing, Inc.
Bronfenbrenner, U., Alvarez, W., & Henderson, C. (1984).  
      Working and watching: Maternal employment in parents'
      perceptions of their three-year-old children.  Child
      Development, 55, 1362-1378.
Carter, D. C. (1987).  Current conceptions of sex roles and
      sex typing: Theory and research.  New York: Praeger.
Cowan, G. & Hoffman, C. D. (1986).  Gender stereotyping in
      young children: Evidence to support a concept-learning
      approach.  Sex Roles, 14, 211-224.
Davies, B. & Banks, C. (1992).  The gender trap: A feminist
      poststructuralist analysis of primary school children's
      talk about gender.  Journal of Curriculum Studies, 24,
DeLucia, J. L. (1987).  Gender role identity and dating
      behavior: What is the relationship?  Sex Roles, 17,
Eccles, J. S., Jacobs, J. E., & Harold, R. D. (1990).  Gender
      role stereotypes, expectancy effects, and parents'
      socialization of gender differences.  Journal of Social
      Issues, 46, 186-201.
Etaugh, C. & Liss, M. B. (1992).  Home, school, and
      playroom: Training grounds for adult gender roles.
      Sex Roles, 26, 129-147.
Fagot, B. I., Leinbach, M. D., & O'Boyle, C. (1992).  Gender
      labeling, gender stereotyping, and parenting behaviors.
      Developmental Psychology, 28, 225-230.
Hargreaves, D. & Colley, A. (1986).  The psychology of sex
      roles.  London: Harper & Row, Publishers.
Haslett, B., Geis, F. L., & Carter, M. R. (1992).  The
      organizational woman: Power and paradox.  Norwood, NJ:
Heilbrun, A. B. (1981).  Gender differences in the functional
      linkage between androgyny, social cognition, and
      competence.  Journal of Personality and Social
      Psychology, 41, 1106-1114.
Henshaw, A., Kelly, J., & Gratton, C. (1992).  Skipping's for
      girls: Children's perceptions of gender roles and gender
      preferences.  Educational Research, 34, 229-235.
Hoffman, L. W. (1977).  Changes in family roles, socialization,
      and sex differences.  American Psychologist, 42, 644-657.
Kaplan, P. (1991).  A child's odyssey.  St. Paul: West
      Publishing Company.
Lauer, R. H. & Lauer, J. C. (1994).  Marriage and family:
      The quest for intimacy.  Madison: Brown & Benchmark.
Lewis, M. & Rosenblum, L. A. (1974).  The effect of the infant
      on its caregiver.  New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Lundy, A. & Rosenberg, J. A. (1987).  Androgyny, masculinity,
      and self-esteem.  Social Behavior and Personality, 15,
Lytton, H. & Romney, D. M. (1991).  Parents' differential
      socialization of boys and girls: A meta-analysis.
      Psychological Bulletin, 109, 267-296.
Maccoby, E. E. & Jacklin, C. N. (1980).  Psychological sex
      differences.  In M. Rutter (ed.) Scientific Foundations
      of Child Psychiatry.  London: Heineman Medical.
Martin, C. L., Wood, C. H., & Little, J. K. (1990).  The
      development of gender stereotype components.  Child
      Development, 61, 1891-1904.
Orlofsky, J. L. (1977).  Sex role orientation, identity
      formation, and self-esteem in college men and women.
      Sex Roles, 3, 561-574.
Paretti, P. O. & Sydney, T. M. (1984).  Parental toy choice
      stereotyping and its effect on child toy preference
      and sex role typing.  Social Behavior and Personality,
      12, 213-216.
Pomerleau, A., Bolduc, D., Malcuit, G., & Cossette, L. (1990).
      Pink or blue: Environmental gender stereotypes in the
      first two years of life.  Sex Roles, 22, 359-367.
Richards, M. H., Gitelson, I. B., Peterson, A. C., & 
      Hartig, A. L. (1991).  Adolescent personality in girls
      and boys: The role of mothers and fathers.  Psychology of
      Women Quarterly, 15, 65-81.
Rubin, J., Provenzano, F.,  & Luria, Z. (1974).  The eye of
      the beholder: Parents' views on sex of newborns.
      American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 44, 512-519.
Ruble, D. N. (1988).  Sex role development.  In M. H.
      Barnstein & M. E. Lamb (eds.) Developmental psychology:
      An advanced textbook, 2nd ed.  Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Santrock, J. (1994).  Child development, 6th ed.  Madison:
      Brown & Benchmark.
Sedney, M. A. (1987).  Development of androgyny: Parental
      influences.  Psychology of Women Quarterly, 11, 311-326.
Shaw, J. S. (1983).  Psychological androgyny and stressful life
      events.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
      43, 145-153.
Sheldon, A, (1990).  "Kings are royaler than queens":
      Language and socialization.  Young Children, 45, 4-9.
Snow, M. E., Jacklin, C. N., & Maccoby, E. E. (1983).  Sex of
      child differences in father-child interaction at one year
      of age.  Child Development, 54, 227-232.
Spence, J. T. & Helmreich, R. L. (1980).  Masculine 
      instrumentality and feminine expressiveness: Their
      relationship with sex role attitudes and behaviors.
      Psychology of Women Quarterly, 5, 147-163.
Steinbacher, R. & Gilroy, F. (1990).  Sex selection technology:
      A prediction of its use and effect.  Journal of
      Psychology, 124, 283-288.
Thorne, B. (1993).  Gender play: Girls and boys in school.
      New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Weinraub, M., Clemens, L. P., Sachloff, A., Ethridge, T., 
      Gracely, E., & Myers, B. (1984).  The development of
      sex role stereotypes in the third year: Relationships
      to gender labeling, gender identity, sex-typed toy
      preferences, and family characteristics.  Child
      Development, 55, 1493-1503.
Weinraub, M., Jaeger, E., & Hoffman, L. W. (1988).  Predicting
      infant outcomes in families of employed and non-employed
      mothers.  Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 3, 361-378.
Weisner, T. S. & Wilson-Mitchell, J. E. (1990).  
      Nonconventional family lifestyles and sex typing in
      six-year-olds.  Child Development, 61, 1915-1933.

Back to Susan's Home Page