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8 Ways Gender Roles Actually Harm Our Kids

8 Ways Gender Roles Actually Harm Our Kids

We all have a good idea of what society expects a boy or a girl to look like, but how much of that actually comes naturally to kids? Many of the gendered traits we start to assume are inherent are actually reinforced by parents and peers – generally for the worse. According to research, placing these unnatural gendered expectations on kids actually is a detriment to their physical and mental wellbeing.

To study gender roles more closely, Dr. Maria do Mar Pereira lived as an eighth grade student in Lisbon for three months. During this time, she observed repeated “gender” roleplaying and encountered several problems with this behavior:

1. Suppressing Emotions

Boys have emotions, just like any human. However, since “masculine” boys are taught to be emotionless, they’re forced to suppress feelings that come naturally to them. The walls they build in interacting with their peers contribute toward becoming emotionally stunted individuals who have difficulty building interpersonal relationships.

2. Avoiding Sports

Even girls who loved sports and participated in leagues reportedly downplayed their athletic prowess in front of male peers. Since girls are “supposed to be” dainty and not as strong as guys, they were afraid to show off any physical capabilities. Their intentional restraint just further reinforces the idea that girls cannot compete with guys physically.

3. Conscious Dieting

Sadly, the modification of behavior extends further than physical activity – girls who felt pressure to be “girly” also changed their eating habits. Dr. Pereira noticed that most girls, well within a healthy weight range, deprived themselves at mealtime in order to achieve a more slender figure that would appeal to boys. This deprivation is the sort of thing that spurs eating disorders or a lifetime of unhealthy dietary choices.

4. Drinking Alcohol

Teenage males who adhere to masculine stereotypes drink a lot more. Part of the reason is that boys are particularly susceptible to peer pressure and want to prove they can drink as much alcohol as their friends. The other part is that the general pressure to perform as masculine creates a lot of anxiety, which thereby drives people to drink.

5. Sexual Harassment

Unfortunately, one of the most common ways males exerted their dominance over females was to make sexually suggestive and demeaning comments toward their female peers. Sexual harassment wasn’t just used to reduce the esteem and comfort of women – it was also used to impress fellow males. Because masculinity is tied so strongly to heterosexuality, objectifying females is a transparent way to demonstrate to fellow males that they are heterosexual.

6. Acting Stupid

Girls consistently demonstrated fear of looking smarter than male peers. In order to not threaten male ego and intelligence, girls were observed stifling their smarts and creativity to come across as more desirable to guys.

7. Violence

When boys had conflicts – even trivial ones stemming from a joke – they felt obligated to respond with minor acts of violence. While the incidents didn’t often result in full-on brawls, Pereira witnessed punches, kicks and other acts between men trying to exert dominance. Males feel the need to show their physicality to be masculine, so not responding with some sort of aggressive act is considered weak… a routine that ultimately reinforces violence as a way to handle uncomfortable situations.

8. Self-Esteem Killer

With all of these pressures to behave in ways that they might not naturally feel inclined to behave, kids felt like they weren’t living up to societal expectations. As they felt themselves failing to live up to the ideal image of a normal boy or girl, their self-esteems suffered as a result.

Following the observations, Dr. Pereira interviewed her subjects and found that nearly all of them privately admit that they felt overwhelming pressure to be more of a girl or more of a boy. When she brought the class together afterward and revealed this secret, the kids stripped some of the expectations they had for themselves and each other for the remainder of the year. They later reported to Pereira that they were pleased with the freedom.

In other words: there’s hope. If we stop pressuring our youth to be more of a specific gender and let them build characteristics of their own choosing, they’re bound to become happier, healthier and more well rounded people.

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11:53AM PDT on Aug 24, 2014

Greater equality actually makes everyone happier in the work place at least. Equality doesn't mean everyone has to look or act the same. It means people are treated with respect no matter gender, sensitivity, looks, race, etc., and pay is equal for the same job. It means you can look feminine and not make 80% of a man for the same job. It means a man can be sensitive if he wants, or not succumb to peer pressure for drinking and still be considered a man. It doesn't mean everyone has to actually BE the same.

12:44PM PDT on Aug 23, 2014

My god another time wasting article.Care2 needs to find more sensible people to entertain us.

8:11AM PDT on Aug 23, 2014

"What society expects a boy or a girl to look like"...??? -That's baloney!

4:52AM PDT on Aug 23, 2014

Hmmm funny, just before i read this article, i posted a pic pics of my 2 yr old daughter dress with a hooded jacket on her head as a cape, play shield and play sword from mike the knight as it's one of her favourite movies hahhahaha...she hates wearing tutus and princess dress up, she rather be a kick ass warrior princess...and that is FINE by me! As i am the same, why do we need to be gender stereotyped??

2:27AM PDT on Aug 23, 2014

We are what we choose to become, it's time to stop all these stupid stereotypes and never put girl in a princess' role and boy as a knight.

9:16PM PDT on Aug 22, 2014


3:56AM PDT on Aug 22, 2014


6:45PM PDT on Aug 21, 2014

We all grew up this way and it didn't kill us. There are girls and there are boys and individual differences should be encouraged,
But, seriously, from all these articles it's starting to sound as if we're supposed to program kids to become unisex.
What if a girl wants to be a girl, or a boy a boy?
How about we encourage and support children into becoming who they ARE.

4:09PM PDT on Aug 21, 2014

Thanks for the information

2:58PM PDT on Aug 21, 2014

I enjoy being feminine. It's not a crime.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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