How Does Johnny Know He’s a Boy?

One of my son’s favorite toys is a dollhouse, and my daughter loves to play with cars. They haven’t learned that little boys play with cars and little girls play with dolls. By the time Nathan enters school he will realize he’s a boy for life, and become quite rigid in his thinking about what a boy should do–no more doll houses. At this stage boys want to play with boys, and girls with girls. Girls don’t like the domineering, rough and ready style of boys, and prefer the more polite tea-party type of negotiation. Older children (ages nine and up) are more flexible; they understand that sex roles are customary but not necessary. Teenagers once again are intolerant of certain cross-sex behaviors such as a man wearing high heals, although girls playing football or driving a dump truck are okay.

According to Albert Bandura children pick up a lot of sex-typed attributes by watching and copying same-sexed models. For instance, Nathan wants to grow up and work in the same office building as his dad. The reasons for this are twofold: parents want their children to adopt sex-appropriate behaviors, and children pay more attention to people who are the same sex as them. Another developmentalist, Lawrence Kohlberg, places more emphasis on children’s cognitive abilities. He proposes that once children know they are a boy or a girl, and this will never change, they actively look for same-sex models and other information telling them how to act like a boy or a girl.

If you’re one of the many parents who want to break away from the traditional sex-role stereotypes, here are two tips:

1. Give your child a lesson in anatomy, pointing out exactly what is different between boys and girls. Explain that outside of making babies, sex has little to do with other important things in life, like what career people take or how successful they become.

2. Tell your daughter there’s nothing wrong with her playing cars and trucks, and if your son wants to play dolls, that’s okay too. Try not to follow the traditional sex-role stereotypes yourself. Dad should learn how to tie apron strings, just as mom should learn how to fire up the lawn mower.