The Settings of Socialization

Just as the activities in which children engage contribute to gender socialization, where children work and play also has important implications. The settings in which children spend their time shape those behaviors they can observe, try out, rehearse, and master. The impact on socialization is directly related to the strength of the setting. Some contexts of development are considered "strong" and other situations "weak" (Snyder & Ickes, 1985). In strong contexts, the range of behaviors that an individual is permitted to display is limited. The situation almost dictates the individual's response. Weak contexts allow more variability; the situation does not demand a specific behavioral or emotional response. With regard to gender socialization, many social situations are relatively strong, particularly for older children who are more aware of gender stereotypes and expectations. These strong contexts demand gender-appropriate behaviors, whereas weak-context environments allow children more flexibility in behaving outside or beyond the bounds of gender constraints.

Girls and boys tend to occupy different locations in space, along with some shared venues (Maccoby, 1998). In general, boys tend to play outdoors and in relatively large groups. When possible, they combine undirected play with their work, for example, interspersing rough-housing and chasing games with tending animals in the fields. Girls are more likely to be found playing with two to three peers in an indoor setting, or assisting inside with household chores, or outside performing errands such as going to the market or getting water or fuel. Girls also spice up their work with fun, especially through conversation, games, or singing. They engage in conversations more readily than boys do, while boys engage in more physical activity (Best & Williams, 1997).

The school setting can be seen as both a "strong" and "weak" context for gender behaviors, depending on the specific location. For example, the cafeteria is a strong context, where boys and girls separate to different tables if given the choice. Likewise, on the playground, boy and girl groups take over separate spaces. Girls usually play around the periphery of the playground, while boys occupy a larger more central space. In fact, boys take up 10 times more space on the playground and often invade girls' activities (Maccoby, 1998; Thorne, 1994). The Children of Different Worlds project found that in societies where all the boys and girls go to school together, same-gender interaction was very high during free play, thereby resulting in more gender segregation than was generally found in the homes and neighborhoods (Whiting & Edwards, 1988). Within the classroom, however, creative and constructive activities, such as art, manipulatives, and dramatic play, can promote gender integration. For instance, in a social studies project, boys and girls can work cooperatively on tasks and are more likely to overlook gender differences than outside in the playground. The teacher's presence can attract both girls and boys to circle around nearby, causing them to mingle and interact.

Neighborhoods are generally "weaker" contexts than school settings with respect to gender roles. Owing to the limited number of playmates available, they often promote play that is mixed as to gender and age, and many favorite group games (such as "hide-and-seek," kick ball, and tag) attract children of all ages, boys and girls equally. Cross-gender play is also common when children collect in small groups or pairs, and when children have known one another for a long period of time and have built up trust and friendship. The more children are present in a space, and the more unfamiliar they are with one another, the more likely they will segregate based on gender.

The Children of Different Worlds spot observations revealed boys to be generally farther from home than were girls, in contexts that are considered weak in regard to gender socialization but strong in terms of peer pressure. Girls' movement away from the home was restricted in some societies, and they left the home area most often when following a predictable path doing a "directed" chore such as gathering water, collecting firewood, or going to the shop (Whiting & Edwards, 1988). Boys had more freedom to wander beyond the home environment in undirected play where they were less accountable to figures of authority and perhaps more free to experiment in their behavior and follow their curiosity. On the other hand, we know from other research that when boys play together in groups, they strongly pressure one another toward what they consider masculine behavior (by ridiculing boys who do not measure up) (Carter & McCloskey, 1984; Fagot, 1984). Thus, boys turn their free play away from home into strong contexts for gender role socialization.

The Children of Different Worlds project found that during directed activities, boys were found farther from home than girls in four of the six communities, and these differences were maintained during undirected play. In fact, it was during undirected activities that gender differences were maximized. Boys spent more time in locations and activities (such as rough-and-tumble play) that accentuated gender differences. Girls were generally nearer the home environment, more often engaged in directed activities with specific task or supervision responsibilities, interspersed with undirected intervals of leisure and socializing.

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