Home is where the heart is. But it’s also the first place where children are socialized into gender norms, values and stereotypes.
From the moment babies are born, their assigned sex (male or female) immediately begins to shape how they should be treated, what opportunities they should receive or how they should behave according to dominant gender stereotypes in their society.
In fact, studies have shown that an individual’s sense of being either male or female is predominately determined by the way they are treated by others. Based on their external environment, children learn very quickly (from as young as 9 months old in some cases) that boys and girls are different – they have their own colours, toys, abilities and particular interests.
These differences and assigned roles based on sex, also known as the “gender binary”, become unquestioned rationale for many ideas about what boys, girls, men and women can and cannot do. For example, most societies expect females to behave in a submissive, dependent and emotional way while males are expected to be strong, independent and stoic.
The most damaging impact of restrictive gender norms is that they hurt everyone – people are expected to conform to rigid ideas which limit the spaces and the behaviours they may wish to participate in because it may not be an acceptable gender norm for their assigned sex.
Gendered norms also result in girls and women experiencing violence, harassment and struggling to receive equal pay and opportunities while boys and men experience higher rates of substance abuse and completed suicide. In addition, body image issues are prevalent among both sexes, with a large percentage of both men and women agreeing that they’re self-conscious about their physical form.
But these widespread ideas about what it means to be a woman, girl, man or boy can be tackled at home by working with parents to help identify and counter dominant gender norms.
Parents teach children their place in the world
Without a doubt, the most significant influence on gender role development occurs within the family setting, with parents modelling and passing on to their children their own beliefs about gender.
In many patriarchal societies there is an idea that boys are preferable to girls. According to research conducted in North America; families are more likely to continue having children if they only have daughters versus if they only have sons – indicating that there is a preference to have male children in the family.
And in low-income countries, where millions live below the poverty line, parents with limited financial resources tend to favour having boys due to a myriad of gender related reasons:
- Boys are perceived as being more “valuable” and worthy of investing in. For example, a preference for sending boys to school is fuelled by a belief that all girls will eventually get married off. Therefore, investing in a girl’s education reaps little return because a girl who stays at home and learns how to take care of a family is of more value to a future husband.
- In marriage, a girl often joins her husband’s family and may cost her family a dowry (property or money brought by a bride to her husband on their marriage).
- In many countries, girls and women do not have property rights. Only men are allowed to own or inherit property, having a son keeps assets in the family and makes sure parents will have somewhere to live when they get old.
- If a family needs hard physical labour to run a farm or make it’s living in some other way, boys are seen as more capable and stronger than girls
As part of our maternal, newborn, and child healthcare programming, we work with fathers to take an active role in supporting women during pregnancy, childbirth and in the care of newborns.
Treating boys and girls differently
Beliefs about the value of boys versus girls are commonly reflected in the way parents treat their children.
For example, the gendered division of household work is accepted almost everywhere. Boys are more likely than girls to have maintenance chores like mowing the lawn or painting, while girls are given domestic chores like cooking and cleaning. This segregation of household labour tells children that they are expected to take on different roles based on their gender.
While both parents influence their children’s perceptions of gender, fathers in particular are more likely to reinforce common gender stereotypes, preferring to encourage gendered toys, sports and rough play with their sons versus their daughters. In addition, the way fathers treat their wives can have a long-term impact on their sons and daughters’ personality and life choices.
In fact, fathers who take on an active role in childcare and domestic labour positively influence their children by showing that the adult male role can be nurturing. This positive role modelling helps boys become better husbands, fathers, brothers and friends to girls and women. At the same time, it positively impacts the self-esteem of young girls and reinforces that both genders are equal.
Additionally, mothers who work and take on a financial provider role in the family also help break down stereotypes for their children – especially their daughters – and challenge ideas about the conventional female role.
Gender equality for all
Of course, parents aren’t entirely responsible for how their children perceive gender – much of the external world including peers, teachers, caretakers and the media have an impact on how children (and even parents themselves) think they should behave based on their assigned sex.
However, parents who are conscious of prevailing gender norms within their society have an important opportunity to challenge gender roles, break stereotypes and educate their children.
When everyone plays a part in standing up for gender equality, we can create a just and equal world where no one is held back by restrictive gender norms.
Transforming prevalent attitudes towards gender
Gender inequality continues to grant men and boys with more rights, privileges and opportunities to become key decision makers and influencers. Girls and women, however, are denied opportunities to develop themselves and improve their social conditions – simply because they are female.
And in many low-income countries, girls and women are not free to exercise basic human rights like education, health and protection – this further perpetuates serious global issues such as intergenerational cycles of poverty, child early and forced marriage, gender-based violence and high maternal and newborn mortality rates.
At Plan International, we’re committed to transforming unequal gender power relations by addressing the root causes of gender inequality and promoting the inherent power and value of women and girls. Our programming goes beyond improving the condition of women and girls – we seek to improve their social position within their communities.
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