From the moment you tell people you're having a baby boy or a baby girl, gender expectations and stereotypes come into play. These can be as simple as receiving gifts of pink clothing for a girl or blue for a boy. As your child grows, the gender roles and modeling he sees can affect everything from his career choices to his relationships with adults. Traditional gender roles in parenting can be limiting for a child's development, but gender-neutral or gender-free parenting can be controversial. Consult your pediatrician if you are concerned about your child's development or behavior.
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Sex Assignment and Gender
When a baby is born, the doctor who delivers the child will almost always make an immediate sex assignment. Based on the appearance of the child's genitalia, the doctor will document the baby as either male or female. In a small percentage of cases, the child's genitalia or anatomy might not clearly indicate either biological sex. Such children can be documented as intersex, although for the purposes of birth certificates and identity documents, many intersex people are documented as either male or female.
The word "gender" is not synonymous with biological sex, although the words are often and incorrectly used as interchangeable. Whereas sex refers to a person's biological and anatomical features, gender refers to the social and cultural expectations of what is "male" or "female." Different cultures have different gender roles. In the earlier 20th century in the United States, for example, it was common for the male to be the family breadwinner, and the female to be the housewife. In 21st-century U.S. culture, certain occupations and activities are socially associated with males -- for example, construction work is male-dominated. Jobs such as nursing or housekeeping, and clothing such as skirts and dresses, are culturally considered as feminine. However, these gender roles do not hold true across all cultures. In Fiji, men wear skirts, and in the Chinese Mosuo tribe, women are in charge of finances, land ownership and family decisions.
Gender and Child-Rearing
Traditional toys for boys and girls can teach specific gender roles that could conflict with a child's own gender identity or interests. For example, toy stores commonly color-code the "girls' toys" aisle with pink and the "boys' toys" aisle with blue. Toys that reinforce gender stereotypes include dolls, kitchen sets and makeup for little girls, and toy guns, action figures and miniature vehicles for boys. Defining and dividing, gender roles in this way can subliminally teach girls that their interests and future activities lie in the home, caring for children and undertaking domestic chores. The coded messages in boys' toys tell boys they should be physically strong, active and mobile outside the home.
In response to the gender-related pressures exerted by certain toys and their associated marketing tactics, some parents consciously choose a gender-neutral form of child-raising. Examples of gender neutrality can include encouraging your sons and daughters equally to take up sports, playing the drums or the clarinet, do housework or wear clothing without strong gender connotations. For example, the color yellow. Some parents will make all options open to their children by allowing young boys to wear skirts or the color pink, for example. Some parents even practice gender-free parenting, using gender-neutral pronouns and names to refer to their children, and refusing to identify their child as a boy or a girl. Such methods are controversial as -- at the time of publication -- our society requires a child, or the adult they become, to choose between binary gender options when using the bathroom, applying for a passport or receiving health care.