[Opinion] Role of Family in Gender Identity Construction


Most children develop a clear-cut sense of whether they are boys or girls at a young age. This sense of being “a boy” or “a girl” is called gender identity. Gender identity development describes how young children learn to understand their gender, and what being that gender means in their everyday life. It is difficult for a child to grow to adulthood without experiencing some form of gender bias or stereotyping, whether it is the expectation that boys are better than girls at math or the idea that only females can nurture children. As children grow and develop, the gender stereotypes they are exposed to at home are reinforced by other elements in their environment and are thus perpetuated throughout childhood and on into adolescence. A child’s burgeoning sense of self, or self-concept, is a result of the multitude of ideas, attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs to which he or she is exposed.

The information that surrounds the child and which is internalized comes to the child within the family arena through parent-child interactions, role modeling, reinforcement for desired behaviors, and parental approval or disapproval. As children move into the larger world of friends and school, many of their ideas and beliefs are reinforced by those around them. A further reinforcement of acceptable and appropriate behavior is shown to children through the media, in particular, television. Through all these socialization agents, children learn gender stereotyped behavior. As children develop, these stereotypes become firmly rooted beliefs and thus, are a part of the child’s self-concept.

Children’s gender identity develops in complexity during the middle childhood years. At this development moment, children have become aware of gender stereotypes having to do with how boys and girls are supposed to think and act. Correspondingly, children start to identify certain activities and abilities as being characteristically “masculine” or “feminine”. To understand the prevailing gender issues in the family, I got an opportunity in the course of gender in education; to conduct a case study with an eight (8) year child in Karachi.

The findings of the study were very interesting for me, because being a student of Gender in Education I came to know that how a child makes meaning of gender around him or her in the family. The participant interpreted the difference between girl and boy by saying that she is girl, because she is beautiful. According to her the boys are dreadful while the girls are pretty. She further explained that boys at early ages are cute while at late stage they become horrible. Ernst (1995) also argues that girls are represented as sweet, naive while boys are typically described as horrible and bold. One such characteristic of female is obedience and non-assertive (Ashraf, 2009). The participant responded to become a doctor in future, because according to her doctor is the job for girls and engineering is the job for boys. These are stereotypes constructed in the family and society that boys are better at mathematics and mechanics while girls are better at art and biology.

Piaget’s theory can be applied to the development of gender by examining young children’s day-to-day play and social interactions. By age 5, children tend to play with a gender specific toys. For example girls tend to play more with dolls while boys play with more Spiderman toys. During this age children become aware of stereotypical-gender related activities and behaviors. In my study, my participant may see her mother cook most of the meals that her family eats, as a result she soon learned that cooking is a women’s job. Meanwhile, she may see her father going to the office, so she starts to believe that going to the office is the man’s job. Early believes about gender roles will reflect children’s observations of what they see around them. A child’s earliest exposure to what it means to be male or female comes from parents. Santrock (1994) also suggests that parents are the primary influence on gender role development during the early years of life. The data reveals that girls are different from boys because girls have long hair while boys have not. Their shoes and clothes are also different from each other’s. She further said that girls use dupatta (a wide shawl), while boys wear cap. From the time their children are babies, parents treat sons and daughters differently, dressing infants in gender-specific colors . Girls sometimes refuse to wear pants because “only boys wear pants” (Trites, 1997).

According to the research participant child, the hands and foot of boys are thicker as compared to girls. As Fox (1993) found that girls are represented as weak and shy while boys are strong and bold. She argued that football is the game for boys because she felt that the girls cannot play ‘boys’ games’ as these games need more energy and power (Ashraf, 2009).She further said that she has never seen a single girl playing football in FIFA (Federation of International Football Association) championship in the television. Throne (1993) also argued that children often internalize gender role stereotypes from books, songs, and media and particularly from television. Research on television viewing and children’s socialization indicates that television has a great impact on children’s lives (Anderson, 1986). According to the respondent the girls are good at studies while boys are not. Many researches also depict this stereotypical behavior among the children. On responding to a question she said that she works in kitchen, decorate the house, doing the laundry and helps her mother in cooking.

In short, gender identity construction found to be associated with physical structure, physical power, outlook, profession and cultural practices. Moreover, these different sources found responsible for identity constructions such as innate and natural physics, traditions, media of various kind and so on. All the above mentioned perceptions and practices of child with respect to the gender, affect in one way or the other in school’s day- to-day activities. Gender stereotypes in any level in the family may cause low self-esteem among students in the school. Due to low self-esteem children may suffer in their learning and achievements. Furthermore, these gendered experiences of home life prevent boys and girls to interact and learn from each other. Thus these barriers reinforce gender stereotypical thinking and practices rather than opening opportunities for the children to benefit from each other’s potential. According to Santrock (1994), students from gendered segregated environment tend to develop gendered value system, which result in perpetuating gender bias throughout their lives. These gendered experiences of family life may perpetuate gender division in their later lives in the form of career choices and domestic chores. Due the gender-stereotypes the achievement of the students are affected in some subjects like mathematics, because generally the expectations from the female students are not high with respect to the achievement. There are costs involved in the maintenance of gender role stereotypes. These costs include limiting opportunities for both boys and girls, ignoring talent, and perpetuating unfairness in our society. Gender stereotypical roles are constraining to both genders. These stereotypes limit boys’ and girls’ freedom to express themselves and pressure them to behave in ways that are ‘gender appropriate’ rather than ways best suited to their personality. This has implications for quality of teaching and learning process both in single sex boys’ classrooms and teaching and learning in coeducational setting (Ashraf, 2009).

So, it is suggested that because of the strong influence of parents on gender role socialization, those parents who wish to be gender fair and encourage the best in both their sons and daughters would do well to adopt neutral role orientation and encourage the same in their children. It is also important to keep in mind that rethinking gender roles cannot be achieved in a day, but it is an ongoing process.

The contributor is studying at AKU-IED, Karachi.

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