Teaching your child about gender, expected roles and stereotypes

Vanessa Hamilton

Updated on Jun 14, 2024 · 3 mins read
Teaching your child about gender, expected roles and stereotypes

We know that traditional rigid gender stereotypes for males and females are one of the main contributors to disrespect towards and violence against women. Most parents might be surprised to know that these rigid stereotypes are mostly learned by (even very young) children at home. Even though most parents value gender equality, just over half incorrectly think their child is not influenced by restrictive gender stereotypes, according to a resource*.

Our children form their beliefs from the world around them – what they hear, see and talk about and from the stories, people and experiences that are an integral part of their childhood. Typically, before the age of two, children are conscious of the social relevance of gender and start to learn ‘gender appropriate’ and ‘gender-role’ behaviour. Children can become aware of gender stereotypes from around 18 months old and can usually identify their own gender by age two or three. This is when they tend to also have a growing understanding of some of the social meanings associated with gender categories, roles and stereotypes.

The Our Watch survey* found that parents of young girls were more comfortable with the idea of them engaging in masculine-typed play, such as playing with trucks, whereas parents of young boys had lower levels of comfort in regard to their sons’ participation in feminine-typed play, such as playing with dolls. Furthermore, more mothers were comfortable with the idea of their child acting in opposition to gender stereotypes than fathers. For example, more mothers than fathers were comfortable with the idea of their young sons crying when feeling sad.

If the gender stereotypes children learn from an early age are based on inequity, this can lead to disrespect of women later on. The most common pattern of domestic violence contains these interacting factors and are identified from decades of research by Australia’s leading domestic violence prevention agencies, such as Our Watch, VicHealth, DVRCV and ANROWS as outlined in an article By Dr Peter Streker in Psychology Today.

“Men tend to be more prone to becoming hostile and violent towards women if they:

  • Have been socialised to adopt rigid, traditional gender roles and stereotypes e.g men should be competitive and dominant; women should be cooperative and nurturing (VicHealth, 2007)
  • Believe that men’s superiority over women is a ‘natural order’ that should be preserved (Reidy et al., 2009)
  • Feel their masculinity or authority has been threatened – particularly if women have not complied with their gender role expectations (Gallagher & Parrott, 2011)”

Let’s stop it at the start campaign (www.respect.gov.au.) tells parents to be aware that: Not all disrespect towards women results in violence. But all violence against women starts with disrespectful behaviour.

Disrespect starts with the beliefs and attitudes we develop from a young age. 

Children are like sponges absorbing how we relate to each other in the home and in society. Are your children exposed to gender equity and examples of equal gender opportunities and expectations?

Examples of shaping children’s rigid gender expectations can be seemingly benign such as in the example on the Our Watch website. The grandfather in the toy store asks his daughter, should he buy his granddaughter fairies or princess toys and the mum tells him to buy her blocks, because she likes building and the grandfather tells her there aren’t any girls blocks only blue ones, the mum says she likes blue buy her the blue ones.

*Challenging gender stereotypes in the early years: the power of parents, Our Watch evidence Paper March 2018

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