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Influences on Children's Gender Development
Authors: Jodi Putnam with Judith A. Myers-Walls and Dee Love

How do children learn about gender? How do they learn gender stereotypes? If you understand this process, you may be able to help parents understand how they teach their children about being male and female. You may be able to help them change the way they teach about gender, if they want to change.

Parent influences

Parents teach with rewards and discipline. They might praise girls and punish or discourage boys for the same thing. That is one way to create gender stereotypes. For example: Mom might praise her daughter when she picks flowers for her, but she might be upset with her son for doing the same thing.

Parents teach by spending time with their children. Children see what their parents do. Children learn when they try to imitate their parents. For example: Children who watch their father do the dishes many times may think that doing the dishes is a male activity. On the other hand, children in single-parent families see their mother or father doing all the chores. Those children usually learn that males and females can do similar tasks.

Parents teach by telling their children what they expect from them. Parents may expect different things from their sons and daughters. That supports gender stereotypes. For example: Parents might expect their son to do well in math, and they expect their daughter to do well in arts and crafts.

Parents teach by giving the children chores. Parents may give different chores to sons and daughters based on their gender. For example: Boys take out the garbage, and girls do the dishes.

Parents teach through their comments. Parents might tell their children that only males or females do/say certain things. For example: Mom might say, “I can’t fix the car, that’s your dad’s job.”

Sibling influences

Siblings are models. Children often copy their siblings’ actions and comments—especially older siblings. And brothers and sisters often tell each other what to say or do. In fact, children with siblings tend to have more gender stereotypes than only children. For example: Sister tells brother, “That looks like a girl’s jacket.” Brother will probably resist wearing the jacket in the future.

Siblings teach each other how to do things and how to act in certain situations. For example: When children are playing house, the older brother tells his younger brother what mommies and daddies do.

The influences of friends and children of the same age

Friends are models. Just like siblings, friends have an effect on children’s behaviors and views. Some friends may teach gender stereotypes. Other friends may show gender equality. For example: If most of the girls like to wear dresses to school, the others may want to do the same thing. If most of the boys play soccer, the other boys may learn to do that.

Friends say when they think things are right or wrong. Children reward or punish each other’s actions and comments. For example: If girl wears “boy clothes,” her friends might make fun of her and tell her she looks like a boy. Another friend might say that girls and boys should get all the same chances.

Friends often play with children of the same gender. Young children tend to play with same-sex children. That lasts until the early adolescent years. For example: Girls and boys may gather in single-sex groups on the playground and do the same things. Children may invite only same-sex children to their houses to play.

Media Influences

Media use stereotypes. Television, radio, magazines, and computer software often show men and women in limited roles. They place importance on women’s beauty and men’s strength. For example: The female characters in Disney movies are very feminine and pretty. They often need to be rescued by men. Boys in movies/TV/magazines are strong and do not express many emotions.

Media encourage stereotypes in commercials. Advertisers make commercials to be of interest to male or female audiences. The target audience is different for different products. For example: Diet pills/programs tend to have more women advertising the product. Sports equipment tends to be advertised by male actors. Beautiful women are in many commercials even though they are not related to the product.

 Tips for healthy gender development

Go to:  • Tips
           • Learning activities
           • Resources

For more information, contact Judith A. Myers-Walls, PhD, CFLE at

Please feel free to link to, print off, redistribute, or reprint
  any of these materials as long as the original credits remain intact.

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