Gender stereotypes are everywhere, and they are enforced on children perhaps more often than adults. In many ways, this notion is biologically driven and assumes that boys and girls are different, and that this distinction has little to do with child-rearing and cultural assumptions about gender. Boys are often viewed as more driven, aggressive, and dominant, whereas girls are deemed more passive, nurturing, and sensitive.
Emily Kane, author of The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls, found that depending on the anticipations parents had about gender (gender being biologically driven or socially constructed, as well as views in between), they either reinforced or contested traditional gender beliefs. Some parents who stated that their daughter was naturally more calm and passive reinforced such behavior more in girls than boys, by telling their daughter to either be still or be quiet. Girls were also more likely than boys to be reprimanded for being rowdy. Therefore, many girls were told at a young age to be calmer, quieter, and passive, even though parents attributed these traits to biological differences between girls and boys. At the same time, many boys indicated to their parents that they wanted to wear colors more commonly associated with girls, or play with Barbie dolls. Depending on the parent’s views about gender, these activities were either prohibited or encouraged. Therefore, parents’ cultural and biological beliefs about gender help maintain or challenge current gender roles. Kane concludes, “With concerted effort, we can reduce the force of the gender trap and open up the possibility of a better, less constrained, and more equitable world for our children and for ourselves.”
Of course, the media is famous for making biologically-driven distinctions between girls and boys and reinforcing common gender stereotypes. The Haribo commercials do this in a blatant manner, taking young children and transforming them into the working “adults” in charge of all parts of the company. In one commercial, the CEO is a boy, followed by his two female assistants. He makes all the decisions while the girls support his ideas. In a second Haribo commercial, the same children sit around a conference table while the CEO, Bobby, is managing the conference. His mother enters the room and interrupts him, saying, “Bobby, it’s homework time.” Bobby replies, “Mom, I told you to call me Mr. Simmons!” Mom then says, “Yes, sir.”
The gendered messages we send to children is that there are going to be distinct differences between boys and girls both while they are growing up and when they enter the workforce. Boys should aspire to become, and eventually will be, the CEOs and bosses, while girls should be the supporters, sidekicks and assistants. But as Kane notes, it is possible to break free from gendered expectations and assumptions and provide a “more equitable world.” Instead of constraining and sometimes even forcing children into certain roles, we should focus on providing support and encouraging their personal preferences and interests.