Gender Roles in Children’s Literature

Everything we read constructs us, makes us who we are, by presenting our image of ourselves as girls and women, as boys and men” – M. Fox It is a well known fact that children’s literature holds an important role in the development of young children. It has the power to teach, offer meaning and serve purpose all while being entertaining.
Children’s literature is a widely available resource that offers children a plentitude of insightful information. Within the pages children’s books lies an immense resource of tools that aid in the development of character for children, and conveys.Gender is an important aspect of development and is a commonly explored theme in children’s literature. Children gain information from many sources such as teachers, family and friends, but they also gain it from literature. Like in every culture the roles of gender in America are an important part of its culture. Gender Identity is a crucial part of a child’s development because it helps children to see themselves in relation to others. A child develops their sense of gender at a very early age, for most children gender identity begins to develop between 18 and 30 months.
After a child has developed their sense of gender they begin to realize that gender is stabile; girls grow up to become woman and boys grow up to become men. By the time a child is the age of four or five they have come to prefer participating and playing in activities that are defined by society as gender appropriate. It is during childhood that children begin to fall victim of stereotypical behaviors. For example girls refusing to play with trucks or wear pant because it is not considered feminine by society. Lawrence Kohlberg an American Psychologist outlines the stages of gender development.Kohlberg outlines gender development in three stages. The first being Gender labeling, in this stage children identify others as male or female based on physical appearance.

The second stage is when children begin to recognize that gender is stable over time; gender stability. And the third stage is gender consistency; children understand that gender is permanent. But what influences children to know what’s appropriate for their gender? The answer may be found in a theory known as Gender Schema. The Gender Schema is a psychological theory that explains how children develop their gender roles.This theory suggests that children learn about male and females roles from the society in which they live in. This theory also suggests that children adjust their gender behaviors to conform to the gender expectations of their culture. Children acquire cultural information about their gender roles from a variety of sources; parents, teachers, family, media and literature.
Through literature children are exposed to characters that outline the expected behaviors for each gender. Children take the information given to them and then try to conform themselves to what is expected of them.Because of this children are unable to know their full potential, forcing them to abide within their given roles. Since the beginning of time gender has defined ones role in society. “Like class, race and ethnicity, gender shapes just about every part of our lives. ” (Macions pg 90). Society places roles and expectations for each gender that are played in out in every aspect of life; home, school, work, playgrounds and literature.
As children develop they are subjected to messages from society, which helps them to gain understanding of the world around them and molds them into their given roles.The way, in which gender roles are portrayed in children’s literature, significantly contributes to the development of children’s gender roles and how they are perceived by society. It is important to teach children about gender roles since it is something that society holds in regards, but most of the time in literature it is done unequally. The portrayal of gender in literature is based off of the expectations of society and places bias on gender. Boys are portrayed as strong, adventurous, independent and capable and often play the roles of fighters, adventurers and rescuers.Girls are portrayed as sweet, naive, dependent, sensitive and emotional and play roles such as caretakers, princesses and mothers. The roles of gender portrayed in literature are often a reflection of the views of society and do not offer objective insight.
Even though it is important to teach children about gender roles, the fashion in which it is done in does not allow children to see beyond those expectations. If a young girl is constantly read stories about a woman’s role as a housewife, homemaker and mother, she will assume that’s what is expected of her and will not know society will allow her to be anything she wants to be.Gender roles in children’s literature are linked to gender stereotypes. Gender stereotypes have always been a part of society and are seen in almost every aspect of life. Stereotypes are defined as “exaggerated descriptions applied to every person in the same category. ” (Macions p. 72).
For every ethnic, racial and gender category society places stereotypes to describe certain groups of people. Gender stereotypes in children’s literature are portrayed in the traits, role behaviors, physical characteristics, and occupations of characters in children’s literature.The common messages in children’s literature about gender put emphasis on the traditional roles of men and woman. Unfortunately traditional roles are often unequal and place males as dominant over woman. Traditional gender encompasses the concept of masculinity and femininity. In many countries around the world, the traditional roles of gender are greatly valued. The traditional role of gender places woman as the homemakers and men as the provider.
“Girls are always shown as passive and girls are always shown as being active. ” (BookStove. com).With such emphasis on tradition, children’s literature does not allow children to see past the stereotypical expectations of society. It is no wonder why gender inequality in children’s literature is so prevalent when society places unequal views upon gender. Unfortunately much of the children’s literature today contains gender stereotypes as previously discussed. One would most likely assume that this is something of the past but it is as present today as it was in past decades.
A reason for this could be that “Gender-role development is one of the most important areas of human development” (Noppe).Since gender roles are an important aspect of development for children, it is a significant topic in literature. However in the majority of children’s books the main characters are predominantly male, thus limiting opportunities for girls to identify with and validate their own gender. The male gender has been the dominant of the two sexes since the beginning of time, which explains why male characters are dominant in children’s books. The majority of children’s books have a male as the main character, leaving females with the minority of literary experiences aimed for them. In an analysis of children’s book titles by S.Ernst it was “found that male names represented nearly twice as often as female names” (Tsao).
Ernst also found that books that had gender neutral and girls names were actually about boys. Gender roles and stereotypes force young children to conform to traditional stereotypes regarding gender. Because of this, boys feel pressured to live up to the standards of masculinity while girls feel pressured to be feminine. Gender based beliefs are incorporated into a majority of literature written for children. Even though the stereotypical divide between males and females is not a large as it was 40 years ago, it is still present today. When they are repeatedly given stereotypical messages, their choices of what they want to become or accomplish is limited by these gender stereotypes” (Bookstove. com).
Today both males and females are doctors, soldiers, teachers, athletes, government leaders, stay at home parents and much more, however this is not fully represented in children’s literature. Females in children’s literature are all too often “portrayed in a narrow and biased way” (Bookstove. com). Over the past few decades societal changes in gender roles have lead the stereotypical beliefs of gender to represent something different than what it used to.With so many changes in the views of society you would think that children’s literature would reflect these changes but all too often they do not. And most often the books that do challenge the beliefs of society draw great controversy causing them to be put on the back burner in favor of more traditional children’s books. The stereotypical roles of gender that are portrayed in children’s literature have been the cause of much controversy in recent years.
However a solution to remedy the abundance of gender stereotypes in literature has not yet been reached.It is believed that the ideas of masculinity and femininity are too deeply embedded in society making it especially difficult to change. Every aspect of society is shadowed with stereotypical beliefs that are perceived through media, advertising, literature and socialization. These models are a constant reassure that exploits gender stereotypes. According to Bookstove. com, guidelines were implemented in an attempt to eliminate sexist roles in children’s literature. These guidelines were expected to encourage a healthier development of gender for young children but unfortunately did not persist to combat the situation.
Thus making it evident, that stereotypes are too deeply rooted in society. It will be interesting to see how the issue pans out over the coming decades. Gender identity is a crucial part of a child’s development and will most likely remain a common theme amongst children’s literature. The views of gender depicted in literature may prevent children from participating in activities that would best suit their capabilities and personalities. It is important to understand and learn the expectations of society but children’s literature does not fully allow children to develop concepts of individuality.Today society places value on individuality and does not limit life chances to certain genders, but this is all too often not shown in children’s literature. In order to help children in the process of gender identity one must realize that children need chances to interpret the world around them without the insight and beliefs of society.
Hopefully in time children’s literature will steer away from the stereotypical beliefs of gender and focus on non-traditional gender roles, allowing children to see themselves in many different aspects.Works Cited Macions, John J. Social Problems. New York: Pearson, 2008. Noppe, Illene C. social. jrank.
org. 1 December 2010 . Tsao, Ya-Lun. “Gender Issues in Young Children’s Literature. ” Reading Improvement (2008). “Unknown. ” 12 3 2007.
Bookstove. com. 5 December 2010 . “Gender Development: Gender Schema Theory. ” Encyclopedia of Women and Gender: Sex Similarities and Differences and the Impact of Society on Gender. Oxford: Elsevier Science ; Technology, 2001. Credo Reference.
Web. 06 December 2010. Fox, M. (1993). Men who weep, boys who dance: The gender agenda between the lines in children’s literature. Language Arts, 70 (2), 84-88. [EJ457107].

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