To What Extent Is Parenting Influenced by Gender Roles?

All kids notice behavioral differences between mom and dad, but how much do these gender differences shape what kind of parents they are? Whether they are cognizant of it or not, gender roles and attitudes play a large part in determining how fathers and mothers care for, interact with and teach their children.

In their book, "Child Psychology: A Contemporary Viewpoint," Mavis Hetherington and Ross Park write that although there are variations depending on ethnicity, age and education level, common standards of desirable gender-role behavior abound in most cultures 1. Some of these behaviors are inherent, such as aggressiveness in males and nurturing in females, and some are learned. In most cultures, childcare is largely seen as a feminine activity, while family survival is seen as a male responsibility. Many modern families have chosen not to adopt these stereotypes, however, leading to a gradual change in gender role expectations in the developed world.

Shaping Ideas About Gender

Perhaps the greatest impact gender roles have on parenting is the passing on of gender role attitudes. In their 2009 study, "Family Patterns of Gender Role Attitudes," Jaime Marks, Lam Chun Bun and Susan McHale from Pennsylvania State University write that parents directly communicate their beliefs about gender to their children and kids learn about gender-appropriate behaviors by observing the actions of their parents 2. Since children usually follow the example of their parents, those with parents who followed traditional gender roles will most likely adopt traditional gender expectations as adults, and kids whose parents place a high value on gender egalitarianism conform less to gender stereotypes as adults. Hetherington and Park write that girls tend to conform less strictly to gender role stereotypes than boys, probably because there is greater pressure from parents and society for boys to adhere to masculine ideals.

Household Duties

According to Hetherington and Park, women usually show more expressive characteristics as parents, and men more instrumental characteristics. This means that most moms are normally responsible for maintaining the harmony and emotional stability of the family, while dads usually feel more emphasis on tasks, goals and societal relationships. Marks, Bun and McHale write that families characterized by more traditional gender roles usually exhibit more traditional division of household labor, and parents' division of housework predicted children's later participation in household tasks in their own marriages.

Quality Time

Gender roles play an important part in how parents treat their children as well. Hetherington and Park write that boys are usually thought to be stronger and are treated more roughly and played with more actively, especially by their fathers, even as babies. Daughters, on the other hand, are usually protected more and allowed less autonomy as they get older. Marks, Bun and McHale write that dads reinforce gender stereotypes in boys more than moms. For example, dads are twice as likely as moms to engage in rough-and-tumble play with sons; they also react more negatively to crying or fearfulness in sons than daughters. Interestingly, Hetherington and Park assert that femininity in girls is directly related to their father's masculinity and his reinforcement of participation in feminine activities. According to Marks, Bun and McHale, fathers are more inclined toward sex-typed activities (especially with boys) than are mothers. In other words, dads will be more likely to play soccer with a son than make crafts with him or cook with a daughter than take her fishing.