This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 10 table of contents.

Socialization and Sex Roles

Socialization is the name for the process by which young humans are taught to fit into society. Sex role socialization , for example, is the processing of learning how males and females are "supposed" to act differently. Psychologists have done many intriguing studies showing how young children are indoctrinated with the attitudes of larger society. From an early age, boys and girls are treated differently.

What is socialization? How does it influence sex roles?

A series of studies in the United States, in the 1970s, marked emerging awareness that children were being socialized toward sex roles by influences from the environment. In one classic study, mothers were asked to interact with a baby who was less than a year old. Typically, if the baby was called a girl, they offered it a doll. If the same baby was referred to as a boy, they offered it a toy train (Will, Self, & Datan, 1976).

Gender-related stereotypes also affected the interpretation of a baby's behavior. Condry and Condry (1976) showed college students a video recording of a baby reacting strongly to a jack-in-the-box. If told the baby was a boy, the students were likely to label the baby's reaction anger; if told the baby was a girl, they were more likely to label it fear .

How do young children reflect stereotypes?

Children themselves were found to have stereotyped expectations about sex-appropriate behavior at an early age. Kuhn, Nash and Brucken (1978) reported that children aged two and a half to three and a half years old already had the following beliefs:


like to play with dolls

like to help mother

talk a lot

never hit

say "I need some help"

will grow up to be a nurse or a teacher


like to play with cars

like to help father

like to build things

say "I can hit you"

will grow up to be boss

How do parents reinforce sex roles as children grow up?

Other studies show that fathers reacted negatively when their boys played with dolls or dressed in girl clothes (Langlois and Downs, 1980). Household assignments were found to reflect sexual stereotypes. Girls were usually asked to care for younger children or help with the housework. Boys were more likely to be invited to help with yard work such as raking leaves or cutting grass (Block, 1980).

What did many well-educated American parents do in the 1970s and 80s?

These studies had an impact on students who studied them in psychology classes of the time. Many wondered if they would someday fall into the trap of "programming" their children with limiting sex role stereotypes. When these students became parents in the 1980s and 1990s, many bought gender-neutral toys for their children, or they deliberately bought toy cars for girls and dolls for boys. The children themselves often rebelled at this, and more than one liberated mother was appalled to have a daughter ask for a Barbie doll. This stubborn persistence of sex role stereotypes was often blamed on residual influences from the culture. Certainly advertising and entertainment media continued to offer stereotypes of female and male behavior. However, some parents insisted that choices of sex-typical behavior were coming from the children themselves.

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