Many parents give little thought to how they distribute chores among themselves and their children. From the moment a couple finds out they are expecting a boy they buy blue and get ready for cars and action figures. If they are having a girl they buy pink, lace, flowers and of course princess. Few parents realize how all of these types of things begin to gender their children from day one. Before I go any further I want to answer the question
Are all gender roles bad?
No. Not all gender roles are bad. In fact, some of our gender roles have been determined not only through our culture and background but our biology as well. There are numerous studies out there that suggest, for example, that women have an entirely different bonding process with a newborn than men. In fact, when a child first holds her newborn she experiences a surge of hormones and neurotransmitter activity that the father does not. Where gender roles start to become harmful to your children is when they negatively effect your child’s relationship pattern development.
How your children learn to interact with the opposite sex will remain relatively stable throughout their life. Not only are you determining how they build and maintain friendships now, you are determining how they will build relationships in the future, how they will interact in a marriage, and even, how they will pick the individual they marry. After all, any individual they marry has to fit into their gender role stereotype. If for example, if the man in your household models to his children that women are to cook all meals, and prepare all snacks the male and female children have just learned a valuable lesson, I.E. The male children have learned that they do not belong in the kitchen and that it is a woman’s responsibility to make sure they eat, while the female children have just learned that they are to cook for men. Subconsciously the children have just been taught that women are somehow worth less than men, and therefore are required to prepare then men food, much as a servant would have done in the feudal system days.
Day to day interactions and modeling are often more subtle than the example given above. For example, who gets their dinner served first at the table, or who gets spanked harder (often male children). While those are physical examples of gender learning there are by far more elusive gender learning experiences in your home. Ask yourself these questions: How does my spouse talk to me? is it with respect? honesty? integrity? gentleness? patience? what tone does my spouse use? How am I recognized for my actions both good and bad? Your answers to these questions can paint a very good picture of how your child is interacting in opposite sex friendships and relationships. I have heard so many parents mention how disappointed they are with the type of friends that their children have, or boyfriends. Always remember, if you allow you husband to model to your children a blatant disrespect for you, your children will subconsciously adapt this as a normal pattern of behavior (even if verbally they say they know it is wrong). Or, if your wife is always putting you down in front of your children, you are lazy, why cant you get a better job etc. you children will also take this in. For children in homes with domestic abuse, drugs, alcohol, or psychological abuse, or child abuse, their parents have set the stage for the pattern of behavior to continue. The children know that what is going on isn’t right but they have no other examples to base their relationships on. For children in these homes they may temporary relief in the form of living arrangement changes, I.E foster care, living with grandparents, these provide good learning environments for the children, unfortunately however, in most instances the behavior patterns modeled by the parents are more durable and lasting and are a better predictor of how the child will interact in the future.
Modeling is the process by which we provide our children with real life examples of how our world works. We model gender roles, relationships, proper communication, emotional knowledge, control and so much more. Children look to you as their model and form lifelong patterns based on what you may think of as insignificant interactions. This isn’t to say that if you aren’t the perfect parents or the perfect spouse your children will grow up to form dysfunctional friendships and a broken marriage. Children are amazing processing machines, they will are capable of taking a lifetime full of experiences and condensing them into one general idea or principle. In other words, if you and your spouse model a proper interaction and communication pattern 90% of the time your children will process those interactions and adapt them rather than those they were exposed to significantly less.
Many parents shun away from ideas like these, or discount them as psychology nonsense. My belief is that parents who dismiss the importance of gender roles, and other important issues, do so as a way to protect themselves, and defend their being good parents. This is mostly due to the fact that it is a huge responsibility, and a scary one at that. We have all heard the analogy that children are like sponges, when they are born they are like dry sponges waiting for someone to pour the knowledge of the world into them. My advice for parents is to simply, do the best that you can. Model the best behaviors that you know, if you feel you are struggling in a certain area in your life get help (counseling, support groups, forums, books). I encourage every parent out there to remember that nobody is asking you to be the perfect parent, all of our kids are less than perfect, and lastly, never forget the complicated combination that nature and nurture play in the development of our children. Some children ARE inherently easier than others, some children have a biological propensity to try their parents. Take responsibility for how the gender roles in your home effect your children. Acknowledge that gender roles are present, assess which roles are going to be problematic for your children and which are harmless. Work on increase your self awareness, then work on increasing your awareness of the gender roles in your marriage. Children are more aware then we give them credit for, you may be racing through life half blind but your children are watching with their eyes and minds wide open.