Gender Role Development in Middle Childhood
In Chapter 6, we discussed gender consistency (see Section 6.3), which is part of the final stage in Kohlberg's theory (see Section 2.4). Only boys and girls in middle childhood can explain their answers in a way that demonstrates an understanding of constancy, such as boys always remain boys even if they grow long hair or wear jewelry.
The belief that girls should have long hair and like to wear jewelry and boys should have short hair and play sports are examples of common gender stereotypes, and themes of masculine and feminine stereotypes have been discovered in children's spontaneous descriptions of boys and girls (Miller, Lurye, Zosulus, & Ruble, 2009). For example, when asked what girls are like, children describe girls predominantly in appearance-related terms, such as dresses, jewelry, long hair, and makeup. In contrast, when asked what boys are like, children describe boys mostly in activity- or behavior-related terms, including wrestling, rough-and-tumble play, and action fantasy play.
Gender stereotyping illustrates the role of three systems in Bronfenbrenner's ecological model, the microsystem, exosystem, and macrosystem, in the socialization process. Almost all children become aware of gender stereotypes regardless of family (microsystem) attitudes or values, because the mass media (exosystem) exposes children to messages about gender. Further, the child's cultural setting (macrosystem) contains implicit and explicit message about values. We will discuss each of these layers individually.
Microsystem Influences on Gender Stereotypes
Although different groups of the microsystem can influence a child's gender stereotyping, it is the microsystem of the parents that seems to affect a child's beliefs the most. How do parents communicate gender stereotype content to their children? Narratives, or the way parents talk to their children about personal experiences, can influence what children learn about gender. For example, analysis of low-income immigrant families showed that conversations with sons contained more action-based activities than conversations with daughters (Cristofaro & Tamis-LeMonda, 2008). In contrast, conversations with daughters included references to physical appearance more frequently than conversations with sons. Parents also may communicate gender differences between men and women in subtle ways such as how expectations of appropriate emotions are expressed. For example, parents may subtly hint that it's acceptable for girls to be scared, but boys should not be scared.
Others suggest that mothers and fathers differ in the types of activities they do with children, which may promote gender stereotypes such as caregiving for females and physical strength for males. Whereas fathers spend more time playing games and participating in sports with their children, especially boys, mothers spend time teaching their children and having conversations with them about their feelings (McHale, Crouter, & Whiteman, 2003). Differential parenting roles are also influenced by cultural values and expectations about what males and females are supposed to do while raising their children, which reflects the impact of the exosystem.
Gender Bias in the Classroom
Teachers are also another part of a child's microsytem who can influence gender stereotyping. In this video, computer science teachers study the problem of gender bias in the classroom. How can this problem be worked on? If you were a teacher in this situation, what would you do?
Exosystem Influences on Gender Stereotypes
Society at large also can influence children's knowledge of and use of gender stereotypes, such as television and the media in general (Halim & Ruble, 2010). The mass media is part of the exosystem in Bronfenbrenner's ecological model (1979, 1989, 2005). Despite attempts at change over the past few decades, television programming still reflects stereotypic messages that teach and reinforce traditional gender roles. The media seldom portrays boys with feminine traits. For example, an analysis of school-aged children's reading textbooks revealed that boys were depicted with stereotypically masculine traits (Evans & Davies, 2000). Further, examination of commercials directed at school-aged children demonstrated that boys and men were more likely than girls and women to be depicted in a major role, have active movement in an individual activity, and be in an occupational setting (Davis, 2003). For example, men were more likely to be depicted as participants in sporting activities or doing activities at work.