Gender Socialization During Childhood

By Samantha Hanly
Gender socialization starts early with pink clothing for girls.
Gender socialization starts early with pink clothing for girls.

Parents often question whether their daughter's affinity for pink dresses, or their son's love for trucks, are learned or innate. This is the nature vs. nurture debate. It seems that gender socialization of children starts very early, and children are exposed to messages from both the family and outside of the home. Sometimes parents don't even realize they are sending gender role messages.


Susan D. Witt, Ph.D., at the University of Akron, states that gender role stereotyping begins at birth; for example, pink blankets for a girl and light blue for a boy. As babies and toddlers grow, their parents serve as role models and examples of different expectations for men and women. Parents reinforce gender role socialization with very young children by offering approval or disapproval for the behavior, as well as what toys they are given and in which activities they participate.


Even during early childhood, peers contribute to gender role socialization. An example Dr. Witt gives is the little boy who wants to have a tea party with teddy bears who gets called "sissy" by his male peers. This tends to stop the behavior. Children bring their knowledge of gender roles to play groups. This peer group reinforcement continues through childhood.


Children as young as 3 to 5 years old are able to label toys as "boy toys" and "girl toys." A study published in the Early Childhood Education Journal found that children of parents who consider themselves "gender-neutral" would predict that the parents would approve or disapprove of their choice of toys and activities based upon gender stereotypes. Whether this comes from peers at preschool or whether parents are less gender-neutral than they believe remains to be seen.


The importance people place on gender roles may be evidenced by the case of Storm. Storm was born in Canada in 2011. Storm's parents chose to keep the baby's gender a secret from everyone including the grandparents. They wanted Storm free to be him- or herself, and not encouraged to choose boy or girl clothing and activities. This secrecy stirred up so much controversy, and in some cases vitriol, in both Canada and the states that CNN reported the parents declined to continue discussion with the media. Gender socialization seems to be ingrained in our society.

About the Author

Samantha Hanly is an organic vegetable gardener, greenhouse gardener and home canner. She grows a substantial portion of her family's food every year. After receiving her bachelor's degree, Hanly embarked on a career teaching dramatic arts, arts and crafts, and languages. She became a professional writer in 2000, writing curricula for use in classrooms and libraries.