“You’re a girl.” “That’s right,” chimes in another boy. “We’re playing with trucks and girls aren’t supposed to play with trucks.” “Right,” agrees another boy. “You’re …
“You’re a girl.” “That’s right,” chimes in another boy. “We’re playing with trucks and girls aren’t supposed to play with trucks.” “Right,” agrees another boy. “You’re supposed to play with dolls.”
At no time in life are gender roles more clearly defined and followed than during the childhood years. Without question, boys are supposed to act only like boys and girls are supposed to act like girls. This is especially true for boys. Boys can’t do “girl things” without considerable social condemnation. Being a sissy doesn’t win respect from either boys or girls. Girls have a little more leeway to do “boy things” and still be marginally tolerated by both girls and boys. By middle school, such girls may have even won respect as a tomboy who can take a lick with the best of the guys.
Are boys and girls really as different as they appear to be? No. Most (not all) of the differences between boys and girls are learned; a learning process that begins immediately after birth.
Before we want to know anything else about a newborn baby, we want to know its gender. (Try withholding this information and watch the anxiety of the person rise.) We want to know! Is it a girl or a boy? Then we start looking at less important things, like does he have 10 fingers and 10 toes? Once we know the gender of a child, we begin using words that are gender appropriate to describe the child.
Baby girls are viewed as beautiful, delicate, and soft while baby boys are seen as strong, coordinated, and alert. Even how we tend to hold a baby boy is different from how we hold a baby girl.
I love the research piece where an enterprising graduate student watched fathers day after day at a mall and found that he could predict with 95 percent accuracy whether a father was carrying a baby boy or a baby girl. If the baby was a girl, the father tended to hold her close to his chest. If the child was a boy, the father tended to carry him like a football, out and away from his body. This amounts to early conditioning where the girl is being taught that closeness is good and boys are being taught to remain at a distance. Later in life this continues to be reinforced as boys are allowed to roam over wider areas without special permission and girls are expected to stay closer to home.
Parents even tend to play more gently with their daughters and more roughly with their sons. Should a young girl fall and bloody her knee, the typical parental reaction is to be nurturing. The parent carefully cleans the wound, places a Band-aid (whether needed or not) over the wound, kisses the ouch, and may rock her and read a special story.
The same wound on a boy often produces a very different reaction. “Don’t worry about it. It’s just a little blood. A little dirt might do it some good.” Such a reaction hopefully produces a strong boy who learns to take licks understanding that “tough guys don’t cry.”
Is teaching stereotypical roles for boys and girls harmless? Probably not. Such conditioning may result in a child never learning the totality of who he or she is. Girls may be taught it is unacceptable to be aggressive and independent while boys may be taught it is unacceptable to be nurturing and compassionate, even if these are traits they naturally possess. Being allowed (and encouraged) to appreciate the entirety of one’s self will ultimately produce a more healthy, well-rounded child.
Rob Coombs is a professor with a doctor of ministry degree and a doctor of philosophy with an emphasis in Family Systems.
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