The Role of Parents in Gender Socialization

Categories: Parenting

Gender socialization, the process of teaching individuals how to behave according to societal norms for their assigned gender, commences at an early stage of life (Disch 1). While society as a whole plays a significant role in this socialization, research suggests that the most profound impact on gender role development occurs within the family unit. Parents, as primary caregivers and role models, play a crucial role in shaping their children's beliefs about gender (Witt 1). They hold the power to either perpetuate or disrupt the cycle of oppressive gender socialization that often begins at birth.

Author Bobbie Harro aptly describes this cycle as perpetual, as adults pass on the same values and beliefs they were exposed to in their own childhood (Harro 15).

Parental Influence on Gender Socialization

Several pieces of literature provide examples of the pivotal role parents play in early gender socialization and the potential they possess to challenge traditional gender roles for their children. Michael Ryan's poem "Milk the Mouse" vividly portrays the influence parents wield in enforcing conventional gender roles upon their offspring.

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In the poem, a young child, likely a boy of four or five, is already subjected to gender socialization by his father. Although the poem does not explicitly state the child's gender, it implies that the child is male through the father's repeated exhortations to "Be strong! Be tough!" while inflicting physical discomfort, reinforcing the qualities expected of the male gender (Ryan 1). Men are often stereotypically portrayed as dominant, aggressive, fearless, and tough, and the poem suggests that the speaker is expected to embody these traits (Brewer 1).

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The father in the poem possesses the opportunity to instill in his son a value for diverse traits, including those that do not conform to traditional notions of masculinity. However, he chooses to perpetuate the cycle of traditional gender socialization. Furthermore, the poem indicates that the father's actions stem from Harro's cycle of socialization, as the speaker reveals that the father is not addressing the child but instead the "child inside him aching" (Ryan 1). In essence, the father is imparting the same values and beliefs that were ingrained in him during his own childhood, emphasizing the cyclic nature of gender socialization.

Debora Greger's poem, "The Armorer's Daughter," further underscores the influential role parents play in gender socialization. In this case, the father figure imposes his view of gender roles on his daughter, steering her toward a more masculine path. Rather than embracing his daughter for who she is, the father is compelled to "make the best of it" and mold her into what he perceives to be missing—a more masculine version of herself (Greger 1). The poem highlights the contradictory nature of gender socialization, with the female speaker asserting, "I am and am not him," signifying that her father's attempts to shape her into his female counterpart have not been entirely successful. Not only does the father exercise his power to force his daughter into a gender role with which she is uncomfortable, but he also exemplifies the preference for sons over daughters that many parents express. A recent study found that 40 percent of American men and women prefer having a boy over a girl ("Americans prefer" 1).

In contrast, Carl Sandburg's poem, "A Father to His Son," demonstrates the potential of parents to break the cycle of traditional gender socialization. Instead of imposing conventional male gender stereotypes on his son, the speaker/father encourages his child to value traits that encompass both masculine and feminine qualities. Initially, the father advises the son to "be steel; be a rock," which reflects the aggressive and tough qualities traditionally associated with men (Sandburg 1). However, he also promotes gentleness and encourages the son to "go easy," characteristics often linked to women (Sandburg 1).

The father not only urges his son to be ambitious and intelligent, typically male attributes, by suggesting that he "seek deep" to understand the works of Shakespeare and others but also recommends occasional foolishness and values such behavior—an attribute more commonly associated with women and often frowned upon in men. This poem exemplifies the notion that parents have the capacity to challenge traditional gender roles and teach their children to embrace and value both "masculine" and "feminine" qualities.

The Fundamental Role of Parents

The parent-child relationship is often the first and most fundamental connection children experience, making it one of the most impactful in terms of gender socialization. Parents are the initial socialization agents children encounter (Crespi 3). They hold the power to shape their children's perspectives on gender roles and frequently perpetuate the traditional views instilled in them during their own upbringing. This perpetuation continues the cycle described by Harro, where adults pass on the same values and beliefs that were ingrained in them as children.

Children's interactions with their parents provide the foundation for their understanding of gender roles. Parents are the first to influence how children perceive these roles and often contribute to the reinforcement of societal stereotypes. Literature reflects the reality of these dynamics, exploring the influence of parents on their children's gender socialization from various angles. As both Ryan's "Milk the Mouse" and Greger's "The Armorer's Daughter" illustrate, parents frequently play a role in enforcing traditional gender roles, encouraging their children to conform to societal expectations based on their assigned gender.

However, literature also demonstrates that it is possible for parents to challenge and disrupt this cycle of gender socialization, as shown in Sandburg's "A Father to His Son." Parents possess the agency to teach their children to embrace a broader spectrum of qualities and behaviors, encompassing both traditionally "masculine" and "feminine" traits. In doing so, they have the potential to foster a more inclusive and equitable understanding of gender roles.


In conclusion, the process of gender socialization begins at an early age and is heavily influenced by parents. They serve as the primary socialization agents for their children and have the power to shape their beliefs about gender roles. While literature often reflects the perpetuation of traditional gender stereotypes through parental influence, it also illustrates the potential for parents to challenge and disrupt this cycle.

Parents can choose to teach their children to value a diverse range of qualities and behaviors, regardless of societal expectations based on gender. By doing so, they can contribute to a more inclusive and equitable understanding of gender roles in society. Ultimately, the role of parents in gender socialization is pivotal, and their choices have a lasting impact on their children's perceptions and beliefs about gender.

Through thoughtful and intentional parenting, parents have the opportunity to break free from the cycle of oppressive gender socialization and promote a more inclusive and accepting world for future generations. By recognizing the power they hold in shaping their children's views on gender, parents can play a crucial role in fostering a more equitable and diverse society.

Updated: Nov 07, 2023
Cite this page

The Role of Parents in Gender Socialization. (2016, Mar 31). Retrieved from

The Role of Parents in Gender Socialization essay
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