- A guiding document for parents on how children understand stereotypes, their impacts and ways to challenge and discuss these with 9-11 year olds.
Gender roles and impacts
Gender stereotypes are culturally ingrained ideas about appropriate behaviours for males and females. Common narrow gender stereotypes can include: that it is not ok for men to cry; that men are naturally aggressive; that females should be submissive and ‘pick up the pieces’. Young people are largely aware of gender stereotypes by this age and will have begun to accept some of these as universal truths. Rigid gender stereotyping promotes inequity between the sexes and can set young people up to expect and accept power imbalances within relationships later in life.
This is an opportune time, before adolescence, to talk about the impact of gendered expectations on choices, existing friendships and future relationships. Accepting gender stereotypes and roles can have longer-term negative influences on children’s beliefs attitudes and future behaviours. For example, surveys with 12-18 year olds have found that:
- One in three think that exerting control over someone is not a form of violence.
- One in four don’t think that it is serious, if a man who is normally gentle with his partner, slapped her when drunk.
- One in four think that street harassment is not serious.
- One in six think that women should know their place.
- One in six think that it is ok for a guy to pressure a girl into sex if they are both drunk.1
The benefits of tackling gender stereotypes with this age group include supporting young people to:
- Become aware of the messages that promote gender double standards and inequality in the media, online and within the broader community.
- Know fact from fiction about sexuality.
- Understand the effect gender stereotypes can have on their options and roles in sport, at school and within their families.
- Develop realistic expectations about future relationships based on mutual respect and equity.
Where do children learn about gender?
Children may learn about acceptable gender roles and stereotypes from television, the internet or other media. For example:
- Print media (magazines such as Dolly, Girlfriend or K-Zone), from books or magazines that their parents read2 (e.g. Australian Women’s Weekly).
- Visual media (the Internet, including social media such as, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and video games, television and music videos).
- Audio media (song lyrics that include narrow representations of men and women or language that is derogatory towards women).
But children also learn about gender roles from their parents from a young age.3 For example:
- How roles and tasks are shared both within and outside the home (i.e. cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, mowing the lawn, managing household finances, taking kids to the park and going to work).
- Themes and colours of clothes, toys and presents given to children.
- Interactions between family members, for example, how decisions are made within the home.
- Expectations placed on different family members based on gender. For example, that it is the responsibility of women and girls to care for others such as remembering birthdays or that the male family members should take on the ‘comedian’ role.
- Language used based on gender, such as commenting on the appearance of girls and commenting on the actions and abilities of boys.
- How parents reward or discipline behaviour that adheres to accepted notions of gender. For example, through statements such as ‘boys don’t cry’, or ‘boys will be boys’ to excuse inappropriate behaviour.
What do young people think about gender stereotypes and roles?
Research conducted around Australia with young people aged between 9 and 11 years, indicates that they have an understanding of culturally accepted gender roles and the power dynamics associated with these. However, it is evident that young people also buy into these stereotypes and are often not aware of when and how stereotypes are impacting on their behaviours and choices. Therefore, conversations around identifying gender stereotypes can work best when supported by an adult such as a parent who can assist young people to understand influences on identity, relationships and decision-making.
Below are comments from Australian young people (9-11 years) illustrating their existing understanding of gender stereotypes.
Some young people can see how early gender stereotyping begins:
“It’s like when we go to buy something for a baby and everything for girls is pink and everything for boys is blue and there’s no other colours” (11 year old girl).
That stereotypes can change over time:
“Pink used to be a boy’s colour but it’s now a girl’s colour” (11 year old girl).
“This year my favourite colour is orange but last year it was blue” (11 year old boy).
Young people are aware of power dynamics
“Men are known to go out and get a job and get money while women have to stay at home and cook and clean,” (11 year old girl).
"Men are paid more than women and more of them are CEOs and have the money,” (11 year old girl).
Making a difference at home
Children model a lot of their behaviour and develop their understanding of acceptable masculine or feminine qualities from their parents. Parents can influence how their children view gender and how they decide what it means to be a girl, boy, woman or man. Children are influenced by their parents through the roles they take on inside and outside the home and through the language used with children themselves. Furthermore, how parents interact with other adults and family members can impact on children’s expectations of personal relationships.4
Tips for challenging gender stereotypes in the home:
- Ensure that children receive equal praise for the same behaviour. For example, praising both boys and girls for being neat or being active in physical activities.
- Encourage children to be friends across genders.
- Use the anatomically correct terms when referring to body parts.
- Point out, critique and discuss gendered representations in the media.
- Avoid gender specific language and statements such as ‘that’s a man’s job’ and ‘that’s not lady-like’.
- Encourage gender neutral toys and colours.
Discussing gender with ‘tweens’
Many pre-teens are ready to actively engage in discussions about respectful relationships, gender roles and stereotypes. This is a key time prior to puberty, high school and before many young people start experiencing romantic relationships, as well as an age where gender stereotypes are becoming more cemented and begin to impact on future decisions such as subject and extra-curricular choices.
Age appropriate topics about gendered expectations can include:
- Jobs and roles for women and men both inside and outside the home and how stereotypes can limit these options.
- Cultural expectations about feminine or masculine activities, fashion and behaviour (e.g. who can have long hair? Who can wear trousers? Who has body hair?).
- How gendered expectations have changed over-time (i.e. their generation compared with previous generations).
- Exploring young people’s current judgements on gender and how this impacts on their expectations of themselves and treatment of others.
- Power imbalances in relationships (friendships as well as romantic relationships), for example, the expectations that are often placed on young people in terms of how they interact with the opposite sex, such as asking girls to ‘keep the peace’ and allowing boys to tease girls ‘because they like them’. These statements can re-enforce negative stereotypes such as that males can’t control their behaviour.
These minor changes can support an awareness of rigid gender stereotypes among children and assist them to create respectful relationships and identities both now and in the future.
Talking gender stereotypes with 9-11 year olds - a resource for parents
Download the resource 'Talking gender stereotypes' here.
This is a resource to assist parents to talk to children between 9-11 years of age about gender stereotypes and how they can both impact and limit choices and interactions with others. This resource will aid parents to assist children to understand:
- What gender stereotypes are.
- Where we learn about stereotypes.
- The impacts of stereotypes on our identities and relationships.
- The importance of challenging stereotypes.
The content of this resource is based on findings from a number of participatory workshops undertaken with 9-11 year olds to understand in their own words how gender stereotypes impact and influence their relationships, identities and future expectations.
Are There Girls Toys and Boys Toys?
What messages do toys labelled “girls” vs those labelled “boys” send to children, what effect can it have on their career choices down the track, and what can adults do?
Male Gender Stereotypes
Children discuss what it means to “be a man” in the media and what boys do that are contrary to what media and society tells them about “being a man”.
How Disney Stereotypes Hurt Men
A look at how Disney stereotypes men and the effect this has on children’s understanding of masculinity.
Childhood Gender Roles in Adulthood
A humorous look at how limiting and tiring it would be for both women and men to live with childhood gender roles in adulthood.
Talk Soon. Talk Often. A Guide for Parents Talking to their Kids about Sex
A booklet prepared by the Western Australian Department of Health to help parents talk about sex and sexuality with children of all ages.
Letter to Lego
A young girl and the change she has on Lego after her strongly worded letter gets picked up by Lego Ideas, a program that allows people to write in their suggestions for what they’d like to see in the Lego range. Hint: she wanted girls to play with scientists and paleontologists.
Gender Identity in Children
A resource from the American Academy of Pediatrics that discusses how children develop their gender identities and how they learn about stereotypes from the adults (men and women) who play an important role in their lives.
Sharing the Pleasures and Pains of Family Life
A resource from the Australian Institute of Family Studies that discusses family wellbeing, shared responsibility between family members, and how equality can be achieved at home.
A helpline and resource for young people between 5 and 15 years of age, including telephone and online counselling and support services.
The Kids Helpline equivalent for parents! This is a an online resource and confidential telephone counselling service for parents and those who care for children available all around Australia.
2. Renold, E. (2005). Girls, Boys and Junior Sexualities: Exploring children’s gender and sexual relations in the primary school. Abingdon: Routledge.
4. Ibid, and Parents’ socialization of gender in children, Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development (2013), and Playing by the rules: Gender roles and young children, Sexuality and U, Sex Information and Education Council of Canada.