Should We Teach Children Traditional Gender Roles?

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An image of the PowerPoint presentation done when sharing the information in Professor Osborne’s class. Photo by Hannah Onder

Gender Roles PowerPoint Presentation

Introduction

In August of 2015 Target announced that they were going to get rid of the boy and girl aisles in their toy section. After the news spread there were two main responses to this: outrage and praise. Some people thought it was ridiculous to take away the signs that were a simple norm in society differentiating toys supposedly arranged to gender preference and were ready to boycott the store. As shown in this quote from the huffingtonpost.com:

“One has to wonder where this will end. The White House announced in April that it was installing a gender-neutral bathroom in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the West Wing, Ike must be rolling over in his grave about that one.”

Other people thought getting rid of the labels was a great starting step to a more gender equal society and praised Target. As displayed in this quote from the huffingtonpost.com:

“Target is a trendsetter. Retailers have an incredible opportunity here. They’re opening up a whole world of possibility for these kids.”

Many people aren’t aware of how deep rooted gender roles are in our society. According to Ferris and Stein, children begin to grasp gender roles as early as ages two and three. However, parents of those children can start treating children in gender roles before they are even born. An expecting mother can began talking to an unborn baby in certain tones and wording depending on what they think the sex of the baby will be (247). People need to realize that the physical, behavioral, and personality traits children are taught by their families, schools, peers, and the media will affect what children perceive to be the norms for society (Ferris & Stein 243, 247). Therefore, people need to be cautious of what they’re exposing and teaching children about because it affects their perceived norms and expectation of people in society. This brings up the argument of whether parents should teach their children the traditional gender roles or if they should teach them to blur the lines established to something more unisex with toys, family structure, and media.

Issue

Society needs to make peace with gender roles because they keep society functioning. They set the norms and expectations for society. However, when society sets norms anything that occurs outside of them can be viewed anywhere from odd to revolting. Therefore, a decision needs to be made about how we proceed with teaching them to the future generations.

For example, women have been fighting for equal rights with men for centuries. They have made progress over the decades through feminist movements which gained them the rights to work, vote, and be educated. However, there’s still discrimination in all of those areas that cause turmoil in today’s society.

In the workforce, there is the steel celling which prevents women from getting the same amount of pay that their male counterparts receives for the same job (Ferris & Stein 259). Also in the workforce is the issue of gendered jobs where certain types of jobs are traditionally viewed as female or male dominated (Ferris & Stein 259).

In education, there are the issues of kids hanging out in the same-sex groups which means the girls hang with girls and the boys hang with boys. It isn’t until middle school that the groups start mixing usually. Also there is the different treatment of male and female students by teachers. According to Ferris and Stein boys are more likely to receive more attention, be challenged, praised for the quality of their work, and punished while girls are more likely to earn higher grades, be praised for their social skills and appearance, and be uncomfortable competing with boys especially in male dominated subjects (247, 249).

Voting in elections are fine when it comes to gender but there are issues in the government with representation. In government offices men outnumbered women by more than half in 2014 (Ferris & Stein 259). When making decisions on laws it would be ideal to have equal representation of the people the choices will effect.

These aren’t the only areas where traditional gender roles have negative effects in society and it isn’t only women being effected either. Therefore, this issue of traditional gender roles needs to be examined and a decision needs to made about whether to leave them or get rid of them. These things can be changed easier if tackled in childhood rather than adulthood.

Debates

On one side of the spectrum there are the gender essentialist, who believe that gender roles are biological and are a binary system. That means that people are either born a man or a woman and they die in that same gender role that they were born into; they see no exceptions to this (Ferris & Stein 245). According to Ferris and Stein gender essentialist think,

“Chromosomes, hormones, and genitalia determine your identity – the way you see yourself, the way you interact with others, and the activities you engage in every day. Culture plays no role (246).”

Essentialist would argue that the current traditional gender roles should stay. They believe them to be natural and anything that tries to change them unnatural.

The essentialist would also probably teach children to strive for the nuclear family. This consist of the husband being the breadwinner, the wife being stay at home mom, and their children. According to Anderson, nuclear families with mothers and fathers playing in their traditional roles are the best for child development. When making this point Anderson quotes sociologist David Popenoe,

“We should disavow the notion that “mommies can make good daddies,” just as we should disavow the popular notion…that “daddies can make good mommies.” … The two sexes are different to the core, and each is necessary – culturally and biologically – for the optimal development of a human being.”

Another strong hold of essentialist traditional gender roles are in children’s media. Female characters are typically presented as the damsels and princesses while male characters are the knights and superheroes. Even in today’s modern TV shows on Disney Jr. like PJ Mask, the boys are given powers that improve their physical attributes light strength, speed, and camouflage while the girl is given sharp eye sight and flying. The boys depend on their body’s physical powers while the girl relies on wits, compassion, and vision, which shows traditional gender roles are still in existence even in more leveled playing fields (Maroon 37, 38).

Essentialist are also against the idea of children playing with toys of the opposite gender and find it wrong that people encourage children to do it. They believe girls should play with dolls and tea sets and boys should play with trucks and rough house (Sommers). Sommers argues that gender roles should be left alone because they are natural, especially in play,

“One of the largest and most persistent differences between the sexes are children’s play preferences. The females’ preference for nurturing and the males’ propensity for rough-and-tumble hold cross-culturally and even cross-species (with a few exceptions…).”

Essentialists believe traditional gender roles should remain because of natural body differences, good child raising environments, it conforms to established children media characters, and children’s natural play behavior.

While on the other end of the spectrum, there are the constructionists, who believe time and culture define the gender roles people play in society. They don’t see the binary system as the only option and reject the idea of a system that encourages gender inequality (Ferris & Stein 246). According to Ferris and Stein,

“Constructionists believe that the meaning of masculinity and femininity may differ drastically in different societies and historical periods (246).”

When it comes to gender roles constructionists are ready to accept changes in traditional gender roles especially if it promotes more equality between the genders.

The constructionists are more likely to encourage the dropping of the nuclear family structure as the ideal family structure. They are likely to promote untraditional structures that work for children equally as well as the nuclear family structure does. According to Villano, children don’t care if parents adhere to the traditional gender roles when raising them. They just need someone to provide structure and someone to nurture them. Villano quotes a family therapist who specializes with families involved in adoption and foster care,

“Generally speaking, there is this dynamic that plays out among parents: one becomes nurturer and the other becomes the structurer. What I’ve found is that it doesn’t matter which parent takes on the role; so long as the parents serve in these capacities, kids will be happy.”

Using this argument, parents don’t need to follow the traditional gender roles to raise happy children.

Constructionists would also support the movement where media is moving toward a more equal treatment of different gendered characters as well as a push to have more diverse male and female characters. Maroon notices how female characters have moved out of the damsel in distress positions to heroine positions over time, however she hopes for heroes with powers that don’t reflect the traditional gender roles. Although one popular mainstream media is challenging the defined gendered archetype of the boys being power aggressors. Maroon claims Steven Universe explores masculinity in a new way,

“Steven is different than most boys we see onscreen. With his disarming charm and genuine affections, viewers are treated to a mainstream example of an endlessly kind of boy who is no weaker for it.”

Constructionists would also push for a change in how toys are targeted toward certain genders. Stores like Toys ‘R’ Us currently have marked all the dolls, beauty products, baking, and pink for girls while they have marked exploration, action, leadership, and all colors but pink for boys. According to Watson, society needs to quit marketing traditional gender roles to children especially girls,

“Women make up almost 51 percent of the United States population, but toy marketing clearly tells little girls where their world is. It is a pink, and that exists somewhere between the easy-bake kitchen and the frivolous, glitzy fashion world, and nowhere else.”

Constructionists believe in getting rid of the traditional gender roles and replacing them with something that will treat both genders more equality, so people can choose their family roles that fit them, children can have more diverse media role models, and kids can choose their own play styles and interests.

Defense

Gender essentialists’ nuclear families have the best statics of success in raising children. Therefore, it can’t be a completely flawed system even if there seems to be some inequality between genders. Anderson’s research states that,

“According to the best available sociological evidence, children fare best on virtually every examined indicator when reared by their wedded biological parents. Studies that control poverty and even genetics, suggest that children reared in intact homes do best in terms of educational achievement, emotional health, familial and sexual development, and delinquency and incarceration.”

The traditional gender roles in place are managing to raise kids currently succeeding in society. Therefore, gender roles are important to show to children so they know what society expects of them in adult life.

Constructionists’ argue that it isn’t fair to force men into the breadwinner position and women into the nurturer position like the nuclear family structure recommends. Villano argues that his daughters don’t care who is in the nurturer position and who is in the structurer positon. He then quotes an assistant psychology professor Dr. Peggy Drexler, who confirms his discovery,

“Roles become troublesome when they become inflexible. Parenting is a lot like coaching a team; some (kids) will respond better to toughness; others do better with a softer approach.”

Their point is children don’t care who fulfills the role of structurer and nurturer as long as a parent is doing them, but it’s even better if parents can play both roles (Villano). Therefore, traditional gender roles need to adapt to the needs of children not the desires of parents and society.

When it comes to the point of raising kids in family structures with traditional gender roles: the essentialists argue that the traditional gender role system works best so it should be kept, while the constructionists argue that society doesn’t fit into that structure perfectly so gender roles should work to adapt to something that works better than the current system.

Media reflects society’s values and norms so in essentialist’s eyes it isn’t wrong to show children gendered characters that will help them act out their proper gender role in society.

“Boys and girls learn that certain activities and attitudes are more appropriate for one gender than the other. Girls should be beautiful, caring, sensitive, and reserved, while boys should be assertive, strong, and analytic (Ferris & Stein 250).”

This is taught to children at a young age as the proper way of “how to behave, how to be accepted, what to value, what is normal, and how my gender fits into society” (Ferris & Stein 249).

In society the predominant media that exists shows that most media in exist reflects this, especially in young children’s media, and essentialist fine it to be acceptable that not many other options exist since the current system is fine in their eyes.

Constructionists worry about the gender roles being thrust upon young children in media because of the strict portrayal of male and female characters and their roles. They believe media should portray more diverse characters to broaden the norms of men and women in society and promote equal treatment of both male and female characters. Maroon worries her boys will feel the need to rely on powers beyond them rather than solving them on their own skills, this is why she hopes in series like Steven Universe,

“An apocalyptic conflict was defused simply by listening to the other side. In Steven Universe, love is the way to fix the galaxy. But women aren’t the only ones doling it out, nor are the men merely receiving it as an impetus for self-transformation.”

This show not only promotes a kinder boy and warrior like women as equal allies it shows characters willing to understand their opposition instead of just beating them. It’s teaching boys and girls to blur the lines of traditional gender roles.

When it comes to teaching gender roles in media: the essentialist are fine with the way media is currently portraying male and female characters that reflect the traditional gender roles in some way, while the constructionists would like to change current media to reflect more characters that blur the lines of traditional gender roles. The essentialists don’t see a problem with the current role portrayals because they enforce what they want. The constructionists want more diverse roles because children don’t always fit into the current traditional roles so they want society to be more accepting of those nonconforming people.

Essentialist argue that it’s right to split toys into gendered sections based on traditional gender roles because it’s based on the children’s preferences and it’s convenient. Sommers argues that girls naturally prefer the dolls and boys prefer the cars. According to the Sommers this is because of hormones fetuses are subjected to in early development,

“Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) is a genetic condition that results when the female fetus is subjected to unusually large quantities of male hormones – adrenal androgens. Girls with CAH tend to prefer trucks, cars, and construction sets over dolls, and play tea sets.”

This causes doubt that socialization primarily shapes gender roles. Therefore, it gives essentialists some power to say children naturally go into the traditional gender roles.

Constructionists argue that toys should be in gender neutral arrangements so children can choose which toys they want to play with. Watson feels that the current marketing of toys is limiting the girls and boys from showing interest in things beyond what is marketed to them and limiting their play potential. According to Watson children feel pressured to play with the toys marketed in their gender,

“If you are a girl, your aspirations should be to play at elegance, nurture a baby doll, and practice cooking and cleaning. If you are a boy, you are to aspire to a persona of power. You are to build physically, train and excel.”

Constructionists want to get rid of the girl and boy categories with toys so children can choose their interest without the pressure to conform to the traditional gender roles.

When it comes to categorizing toys by gender, the essentialist support the separating the toys because children naturally have those preferences due to hormones they were exposed to in early development. While the constructionists argue that separating the toys put pressure on children to conform to the traditional gender roles instead of their own interests.

Solution

When it comes to solving the issue of whether people should continue teaching traditional gender roles or if they should modify them, the first step should be spreading awareness of the issue. Watson stated he didn’t even notice the gender essentialism playing out in the toy categories at stores until it was pointed out to him.

“I really could not believe what I was seeing in front of me in this store that I had visited dozens of times before. I felt guilty for having participated in this cultural child programing. But to be honest, when I was there with my sons, I was in defense mode against a constant barrage of the “gimmes,” and it took all of my willpower and focus to keep them in control, to the point I was blind to the propaganda all around me.”

If parents are aware of the traditional gender roles being pushed in everyday society they could teach their children that they don’t have to follow in them if they don’t want to. One way to help raise awareness of these issues are to post them to social media. For example, the Target story at the beginning stated with the action of a mother snapping a picture of a sign that said Legos and girl Legos in Target (Sleczkowski). After that the picture went viral, Target decided to act on it by changing their toy section to be gender neutral.

The key thing to help encourage children break out of traditional gender roles is for parents to step in since they have the most influence on children’s norms. According to Capretto’s psychologist source, Tsabary,

“It’s up to us as a society and especially as parents to change the dynamic between men and women. We cannot wait for the next feminist movement.”

Capretto said parents need to more proactive in teaching their children as well as provide a sense of safely as they explore different masculine and feminine elements to find their own role in society. Therefore as each generation goes forward the traditional gender roles get more and more blurred until they evolve into something more equal for society to live by.

Pros and Cons

Having parents be the ones to teach their children to overlook the traditional gender roles would be best because having someone else do it could potential upset parents depending on their methods. Also, if parents teach their children to explore their different elements of masculinity and feminism they also making themselves a safe person for their child. Therefore, if their child ever has problems they have someone close to them they can go to for help.

Although having just parents teach their children about gender roles opens up the issue of parents teaching kids all different versions of gender roles which could be chaotic in a way. This is because gender roles keep society functioning with set norms and expectations, so they would probably need to be standardized at some point. Also having gender roles evolve a little more each generation until equality is reached could take a long time.

Overall this solution is good because it gives parents the freedom to choose how they want their children to learn gender roles and it saves them the trouble of dealing with the issue of someone else teaching it to their child wrong. The negative things about this solution is the lack of standardization and the amount of time it could take.

Conclusion

Children need to be taught gender roles however they need to be updated gender roles which promote equality between the genders instead of inequality like the traditional ones. Gender roles are important to society because they teach children the norms and expectations they need to live in society. However, the current traditional gender roles are deeply rooted into society’s family structures, media, and toys which are major influencers on children. In order to change the inequality caused by traditional gender roles parents need to be ready to teach children that inequality is wrong and allow their children to explore masculine and feminine elements in order to find their role. With the new generation of parents backing this belief, the family structures, media, and toys will change to accommodate those norms and overtime through the generations and the gender roles will change as well until there is no more inequality between genders. Will this be the generation to start the movement?

Works Cited

Anderson, Ryan. “Marriage matters: Consequences of redefining marriage.” Heritage, 18 Mar. 2013, http://www.heritage.org/marriage-and-family/report/marriage-matters-consequences-redefining-marriage. Accessed 11 Apr. 2017.

Capretto, Lisa. “How parents can start to dismantle traditional gender roles for their kids.” The Huffington Post, 22 July. 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/parents-gender-roles-kids_us_578ff415e4b0bdddc4d30e5e?utm_hp_ref=gender-roles. Accessed 14 Apr. 2017.

Ferris, Kerry, and Jill Stein. The Real World: An Introduction to Sociology. W.W. Norton & Company, 2016

Maroon, Everett, and Lilian, Min. “Super Power Play.” Bitch Magazine: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, no.72, Fall2016, pp. 36-49, EBSCOhost, ejwl.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=117240203&site=ehost-live. Accessed 10 Apr. 2017.

Sleczkowski, Cavan. “Target angers customers with its stores’ new non-gendered policy.” The Huffington Post, 11 Aug. 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/target-gender-biased-signs_us_55c9ffe6e4b0923c12be0f96. Accessed 9 Apr. 2017.

Sommers, Christina. “Gender Preferences Are Connected to Biological Sex from an Early Age.” Greenhaven Press, 2014, Opposing Viewpoints in Context, http://ic.galegroup.com/ic/ovic/ViewpointsDetailsPage/ViewpointsDetailsWindow?disableHighlighting=false&displayGroupName=Viewpoints&currPage=&scanId=&query=&source=&prodId=OVIC&search_within_results=&p=OVIC&mode=view&catId=&u=txshracd2582&limiter=&display-query=&displayGroups=&contentModules=&action=e&sortBy=&documentId=GALE%7CEJ3010908206&windowstate=normal&activityType=&failOverType=&commentary=. Accessed 10 Apr. 2017.

Villano, Matt. “Do kids care if their parents adhere to traditional gender roles?” The Atlantic, 17 Apr. 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/04/do-kids-care-if-their-parents-adhere-to-traditional-gender-roles/275066/. Accessed 10 Apr. 2017.

Watson, Rob. “Hey. Toys ‘R’ Us, stop thrusting gender roles on my kids!” The Huffington Post, 2 Feb. 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rob-watson/hey-toys-r-us-stop-thrusting-gender-roles-on-my-kids_b_4025214.html. Accessed 9 Apr. 2017.

Annotated Bibliography

Anderson, Ryan. “Marriage matters: Consequences of redefining marriage.” Heritage, 18 Mar. 2013, http://www.heritage.org/marriage-and-family/report/marriage-matters-consequences-redefining-marriage. Accessed 11 Apr. 2017. Offers the gender essentialists viewpoint on marriage and family by arguing the importance of raising kids in the nuclear family structure.

Capretto, Lisa. “How parents can start to dismantle traditional gender roles for their kids.” The Huffington Post, 22 July. 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/parents-gender-roles-kids_us_578ff415e4b0bdddc4d30e5e?utm_hp_ref=gender-roles. Accessed 14 Apr. 2017. Offers a solution for modern day parents on how to handle dismantling traditional gender roles for their children.

Ferris, Kerry, and Jill Stein. The Real World: An Introduction to Sociology. W.W. Norton & Company, 2016. Offers a general overview of the issue of gender in society.

Maroon, Everett, and Lilian, Min. “Super Power Play.” Bitch Magazine: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, no.72, Fall2016, pp. 36-49, EBSCOhost, ejwl.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=117240203&site=ehost-live. Accessed 10 Apr. 2017. Offers the viewpoint of a mother talking about the affects modern media characters could have on her children and how they’re changing over time.

Sleczkowski, Cavan. “Target angers customers with its stores’ new non-gendered policy.” The Huffington Post, 11 Aug. 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/target-gender-biased-signs_us_55c9ffe6e4b0923c12be0f96. Accessed 9 Apr. 2017. Offers the reactions of gender essentialists and constructionists on the issue of Target moving in a gender non-conformity direction with their toy section.

Sommers, Christina. “Gender Preferences Are Connected to Biological Sex from an Early Age.” Greenhaven Press, 2014, Opposing Viewpoints in Context, http://ic.galegroup.com/ic/ovic/ViewpointsDetailsPage/ViewpointsDetailsWindow?disableHighlighting=false&displayGroupName=Viewpoints&currPage=&scanId=&query=&source=&prodId=OVIC&search_within_results=&p=OVIC&mode=view&catId=&u=txshracd2582&limiter=&display-query=&displayGroups=&contentModules=&action=e&sortBy=&documentId=GALE%7CEJ3010908206&windowstate=normal&activityType=&failOverType=&commentary=. Accessed 10 Apr. 2017. Offers an viewpoint against having gender neutral toys.

Villano, Matt. “Do kids care if their parents adhere to traditional gender roles?” The Atlantic, 17 Apr. 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/04/do-kids-care-if-their-parents-adhere-to-traditional-gender-roles/275066/. Accessed 10 Apr. 2017. Offers the viewpoint of a father raising kids in a family that doesn’t conform to the nuclear family structure.

Watson, Rob. “Hey. Tys ‘R’ Us, stop thrusting gender roles on my kids!” The Huffington Post, 2 Feb. 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rob-watson/hey-toys-r-us-stop-thrusting-gender-roles-on-my-kids_b_4025214.html. Accessed 9 Apr. 2017. Offers a constructionist viewpoint on Toys ‘R’ Us’s toys being separated by gender.


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