Gender socialization in the family
Oakley argues children learn what it means to be feminine and masculine not just from their parents (significant others) but by looking at themselves and their parents in terms of wider social expectations about gender (the ‘generalized other’). Oakley’s (1972) efforts to provide evidence about the importance of nurture were limited because she had to draw largely on psychological literature, given that very little else about the learning of gender was available at the time. She argued, for example, that parents, especially mothers, condition their children’s behaviour by treating girls and boys in accordance with social expectations. Oakley refers to one piece of research that suggests that girls are fussed over more by their mother and implies that the mother’s behaviour will actually make the girls less independent. Cognitivists argue that the conditioning works because the child has already recognized their gender identity by about four years old, and wants to live up to it. Social learning theorists believe that the child learns their gender because they are rewarded for behaving in gender appropriate ways. Oakley does not think it is possible or important to decide in which order the process occurs and she points out that gender identities vary depending on the type of family a child lives in and how their parents treat them. However, she argues that children identify their parents not just as individuals but in terms of the social groups to which their parents belong. Children pick up on the age and gender and status of their parents and compare them to others. They quickly learn how men and women are expected to behave, even if those close to them do not always behave according to those expectations.
From a more current sociological viewpoint, this story of gender acquisition perhaps relies too heavily on the influence of parents in early childhood. Also, although it indicates that children learn about gender partly by comparing their parents to others, a lot of emphasis is put on the parents’ role in transmitting gender to their offspring. Liz Stanley and Sue Wise (1983) have commented that the focus of many socialization theories is not just on families, or even parents, but on the role of mothers. The assumption is that mothers are responsible for teaching children social expectations about gendered behaviour, which children supposedly passively internalize. Yet gender expectations are extremely varied and often contradictory. Socialization models do not usually appreciate complexity and variation and assume that people are determined by a clear set of social norms. One possible implication is that if families raised children differently gender inequalities would disappear. The generation of parents influenced by feminism who tried to bring up their children in gender neutral ways, soon discovered that not giving your boys guns was not enough. Parents and their children do not live in a bubble and children are always exposed to a wider circle of people and expectations within their social world. Children have grandparents and other extended family, they spend time with friends, at nursery, kindergarten or school, and they watch television and videos. It may be that parents have most influence, but they are far from the only source from which children will get ideas about gender appropriate behaviour. In focusing on parental, and especially motherly, influence there is also an assumption that parents have clear ideas, and agree with each other, on how girls and boys should behave. It is also assumed that they consistently reward ‘appropriate’ behaviour and the messages will be clear to children. Children may sometimes get contradictory messages about how to behave, and although the overall gender pattern is likely to be fairly clear, girls and boys do not just passively accommodate to a fixed feminine or masculine template but play around with the possibilities to different degrees. So if Grandpa is telling a child that girls do not play rugby, but her older cousin is in a women’s rugby team and often throws rugby balls with her, that girl will have to interpret these different ideas about gender and choose a path through and around them.