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With Christmas at our doorstep, our children are getting excited to receive their long-awaited Christmas presents and us, as parents, are already starting to think which toys suit best our child’s preferences. Robots, trains, cars for boys and dolls, pink fluffy stuffed animals for girls, right? Playing is an integral part of the development process and the ways in which it takes place provide functional experiences to acquire a diversified socialization for males and females.

But why is there a strict separation between the two genders and the activities and toys they should use?

Here, we are stumbling on the concept of (early)gender socialization.

What is it? And how important is it?

When parents have a new baby, the first question they typically ask is whether they have a girl or a boy. Children’s gender assignment becomes a powerful social identity that shapes children’s lives. During early childhood, girls and boys spend much of their time in the home with their families and look to parents and older siblings for guidance. Parents provide children with their first lessons about gender. Possible ways that parents might influence children’s gender development include role modeling and encouraging different behaviors and activities in sons and daughters.

Gender is one of the first social categories children become aware of. By the time they are three years old, they have formed their gender identity. They also begin to learn cultural gender stereotypes: that certain behaviors, activities, toys and interests are typical for boys and girls. Although children play an active role in shaping their gender identity development, their knowledge about gender comes from many sources of socialization, including parents, as we already mentioned but also peers and teachers.

Parents’ differential treatment of daughters and sons

Although gender-egalitarian attitudes have increased in many cultures over the past decades, parents have different expectations for their sons and daughters with regard to personality traits, abilities and activities.

The most consistent manner by which parents treat girls and boys differently is through the encouragement of gender-stereotyped activities. These include the types of toys that parents might purchase or the kinds of activities that they promote. For example, parents are more likely to provide toy vehicles, action figures, and sports equipment for their sons; and they are more likely to give dolls, kitchen sets, and dress-up toys to their daughters. Other ways that parents may use to reinforce gender stereotypes is seen in parents’ use of essentialist statements about gender. Examples would be “Girls like dolls” or “Boys like football.”

Why shouldn’t we broaden the possibilities and go beyond the gender stereotype and offer more playing opportunities to our children, perhaps also exploring new interests?

Gender stereotypes are converted into pre-judgments and expectations about children which prevail over their own individuality and their human potentials: gender stereotypes lead us to avoid, restrict or make difficult the development of some of those potentials but they lead us also to press and force the development of potentials that we believe make part of their person.

What could be done?

Parents and educators are encouraged to provide children with a wide range of toys and activities during early childhood. Likewise, it is recommended that parents and teachers create playful environments where children interact positively with both boys and girls. These interactions would help children to develop skills to interact effectively in mixed-gender groups and to gain a better understanding of gender differences and similarities. We (parents and educators) should also be able to foster greater gender-role flexibility through encouragement of organized mixed-gender activities in which girls and boys learn to work together as equals. Moreover, we could expose children to counter-stereotypic models (e.g., a female hockey player or a male nurse) and teach them that being a girl or boy is more than just looking pretty or acting tough. Parents can try to encourage their children to play with a combination of feminine- and masculine-stereotyped toys and play activities during early childhood.

Finally, for this Christmas, we could probably expand our views and offer our children more playing opportunities opening up to every “outside the gender box” possibility, couldn’t we?

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