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Gender Stereotypes and Parenting

By — National Association for Gifted Children
Updated on Apr 23, 2014

As parents, we have a significant role in nurturing our children’s interests, values and, ultimately, career decisions. Often, we unintentionally introduce gender stereotypes (beliefs about acceptable roles for boys or girls) through our interactions with our children or introduce gender stereotype thinking into the home. As parents of a little girl and a grown woman, we are aware of the dangers of gender stereotyping. We have always been conscious of finding ways to instill values of gender equality and androgyny, behavior that is neither masculine nor feminine. For example, when Kathy realized she was defaulting to the male pronoun, she began trying to insert the female pronoun or both pronouns into her speech. Her daughter has become so attuned to gender-neutral language, that, when discussing the activity of an insect, she’ll proclaim that “he or she is crawling up the wall.”

However, despite efforts by us (including our husbands) to model androgyny in our behaviors at home, our daughters still managed to absorb societal beliefs of what is for “girls” and what is for “boys.” For example, when Kathy asked her daughter what she wanted to be as a grown-up, she said she wanted to be a nurse. When asked why, she said “because I’m a girl.” What a logical conclusion – every time she has gone to the doctor, her nurse has been female. And virtually every doctor has been male. You can bet that the very next thing Kathy did was search for a female doctor and a male nurse! We began to wonder why these beliefs continue to be so pervasive and what effects they were having on Kathy’s daughter, Carolyn’s daughter, other girls, and young women as they form their career goals. And, more importantly, what can we do to counter these effects?

Parents’ Beliefs and Behaviors

Because the family unit is the starting point, and possibly the most significant place for our children to begin developing gender stereotypes and how they relate to career goals, parents have a powerful role in our children’s career development through the opportunities we provide, the nature of our family relationships, and our behaviors and beliefs. Indeed, parents and children tend to have very similar career goals and values. When we have strong bonds with our children, we easily transmit our values, beliefs, and interests to them, and this can contribute to our children’s career choices and success. As parents who support and advise our children’s career development, we pave the way for our children to feel free to pursue non-traditional careers, such as engineering or computer science for girls, and music or elementary school teaching for boys –or not!

Although both mothers and fathers have an impact on children’s career development, mothers may be more influential than fathers, teachers, and even peers. Children who identify strongly with their mothers tend to put more value on school, have a higher selfconcept, and have higher educational expectations. High school juniors report that they talk more to their mothers than anyone else about their career plans and the training and education needed for a career. Fathers, second only to mothers, also have an important role in teens’ career planning. It is clear that, as parents, we have a profound impact on our children’s career development. For example, parents who value education tend to have children with professional career goals, and parents who value athletics tend to have children with athletic career goals.

Our values also influence the particular interests, developed competencies, and self-concepts our children cultivate, and these characteristics are important indicators of career choice. For example, if we show that we place a high value on science ability, then our children are likely to be interested in science, feel confident in their science abilities, and take advanced courses in that subject. Attaching value to an area of study and holding high expectations for performance in that domain is likely to influence a child also to place high value on that performance domain and strive to feel competent at it. Competence in an area leads to a tendency to see the possibility for related careers.

We also affect our children’s career choices by passing along gender stereotypes. The ways in which such stereotypes are relayed to children can be subtle but consistent, sending a clear message about the academic domains at which boys and girls are supposed to excel. Parents tend to help their children with school assignments in gender-stereotypic ways; for example, Dad may help with math homework and Mom with language arts homework. In addition, parents tend to identify their child’s giftedness in gender-stereotypic ways (again, boys are good at math and science, and girls are good at language arts). Indeed, parents’ beliefs about their children’s abilities in areas like math, English, and sports are more influenced by their children’s gender than actual ability.

Ultimately, our beliefs affect our behaviors, which in turn influence children’s development of self-concept, interests, and career goals. Our beliefs affect the way we explain our children’s successes, how we react emotionally to our children’s achievements, the value we place on our children’s accomplishments in certain activities (such as sports, math, or dance), and the activities, toys, and experiences we choose for our children.

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