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04 April 2011

Gender identity and socialisation

A child's gender identity is largely determined by social and environmental factors.

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During childhood, the child’s gender identity starts to take shape. Gender identity is largely determined by social and environmental factors.

Communication about socially and culturally defined gender roles and behaviours happens from birth. Thus the child’s socialisation begins – the way the child is shaped and influenced, often to fit into an expected role in society.

For example, when an infant is born, people want to know the sex of the child. Based on this they often respond with statements such as “What a strong looking, big boy!” or “What a cute girl, she’s so pretty!” People generally respond in stereotypical ways, based on the biological differences that exist between males and females. In this way, they perpetuate unequal power relations between boys and girls, and give them different and unequal status.

The overt and hidden messaging that children receive is extended in childhood when they begin to engage society’s messages about how females and males should act, and begin to show an understanding of gender roles. For example; boys are told directly that they should not take part in ballet; or derogatory remarks are made about men who do ballet, eg “Men who wear tights are moffies”. The message boys receive is that “ballet is for sissies and girls”.

A boy who wants to take part in ballet is perceived to be in a ‘girl’s role’ or is not seen as ‘a real boy’. He may then be bullied, teased and ostracised for being different, for not fitting in, and for not following the heterosexual ‘norm’.

Gender roles and traits
During childhood, children experiment with gender roles and traits (eg being strong, being neat, being caring), and gender identity begins to take shape. By this we mean the child’s own sense of ‘maleness’ or ‘femaleness’.

For example, children often ‘play house’ and take on different social roles. In this way, they learn about various male and female roles by modelling what they see in their homes and in the outside world. Boys are taught that they should be tough and are allowed to play rough games, while girls are told they should be caring and play quietly with their dolls.

Gender-role stereotyping teaches boys that being sensitive and caring is a female role, and being macho and aggressive is the natural role of a male adult.

This type of socialisation is harmful because it limits boys from expressing their nurturing sides and restricts their natural behaviour, eg “Little boys must not cry, they must be strong”.

Girls and boys are usually taught from an early age what society considers to be the role for them as females and males. If a girl of 7, for instance, does not like wearing dresses because she feels more comfortable in pants and enjoys playing what are traditionally ‘boys’ sports’, she is seen as a ‘tomboy’, or that she wants to be like a boy.

These patterns of control cause enormous harm psychologically in restricting young children from developing their own natural direction.

Girls are socialised not to be aggressive and fight back, and thus to be passive. Boys who are seen as behaving passively are labelled "sissies” and “moffies”. This labelling displays a fear of what they will become – not ‘proper girls’ and ‘proper boys’ – but lesbians or gay men. - Triangle Project

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