Strict Gender Expectations Are Harming Children Across the Globe

A new study demonstrates that enforced gender expectations can harm children, pushing them toward unhappiness, depression and even suicidal thoughts.

Entitled “The Global Early Adolescent Study: An Exploration of the Factors that Shape Adolescence,” the study appears in the October edition of “Journal of Adolescent Health.”

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University and other leading experts examined data gathered from children between the ages of 10 and 14 from across 15 countries, all of which ranged in levels of wealth and development. This data gathering involved interviewing around 450 teenagers, as well as their parents, and asking them questions relating to their perceptions of gender and the enforcement of gender roles.

“What we’ve learned is that there’s more commonality than differences in 10-year-olds across the world,” lead author Robert Blum explained. “We were very surprised to see such universality of the myth that boys are strong, confident and leaders, while girls are weak and incompetent, who should be quiet and follow.”

The research spanned the United States, Bolivia, Belgium, Burkina Faso, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Scotland and South Africa. Despite the very different cultural standards in these nations, children faced surprisingly strong and uniform gender expectations. And both girls and boys are harmed by these enforced gender roles.

When it comes to female development, adolescent girls are treated, in effect, as ticking time bombs. As one commentary paper on this research described, these girls are viewed as “the embodiment of sex and sexuality.” As a result, girls in the study reported being under strict vigilance and management — right down to how they are allowed to sit, to dress, to speak and/or conduct themselves when out in public. A girl who arrived home late would face suspicion and severe punishment, one child noted.

By the same token, pubescent boys are often seen as predators. Commentary on the research notes that the “boys are trouble” myth leads to a lack of emotional support for boys. Young women may also be punished for speaking to men, and soft reinforcements of this division between boys and girls may take the form of social isolation and stigma.

If children dare to stray from these gender expectations, which can be perpetuated by parents, schools, clergy and peers, they face harsh treatment in the form of ridicule, shame and, as other research has corroborated, threats of violence.

This social pressure amounts to highly contrasting but similarly damaging experiences for girls and boys. Girls undergoing puberty may experience a shrinking world as society tells them to act properly, to stay home due to safety concerns and to remain chaste and pure until marriage.

Therefore, girls become isolated and face higher risk of punishment if they step out of line. For example, if a young teenager gets pregnant, she can face significant stigma that can dramatically impact her future prospects and forever mark her as having failed to live up to the standards of what a “good girl” should be.

While it might sound as if boys are awarded unlimited freedom, they are often lack the support to understand their own emotions, behaviors or actions. Researchers found that boys are almost expected to impregnate girls, to get into fights and to be aggressive. If they do these things, they are punished. But if they do take that route, they could be treated by their peers — or even their parents — as not being “man enough.”

This vicious cycle — one that sounds alarmingly like toxic masculinity – continues when boys grow up and teach their children what it means to be men or women.

Strict gender expectations increase the likelihood that girls will experience child marriage, be forced to leave school early and fall victim to violence and depression. Similarly, boys face elevated risk of violence and a higher likelihood of substance abuse problems and suicidal ideation.

All of these so-called gender expectations arise far earlier than we might expect, with stereotypes beginning at infancy. But enforcement of those gender roles really takes hold during puberty – and that’s the ideal time to intervene.

We can support children in discovering who they are by ensuring equity both at home and in school. Of course, none of this research seeks to erase the manifest ways in which boys and girls might differ, but it stresses that we shouldn’t enforce preconceived notions about gender. Children should be raised as human beings, not gender characteristics.

Dismantling gender norms isn’t easy, but science seems to suggest that by removing these kinds of restrictions, we can make our children healthier and happier — something all parents want.

Photo Credit: Joseph Gonzalez/Unsplash

46 comments

Marie W
Marie W8 months ago

Thank you for posting.

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Mike R
Mike Rabout a year ago

Thanks

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Mike R
Mike Rabout a year ago

Thanks

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Carl R
Carl Rabout a year ago

thanks!!!

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Carl R
Carl Rabout a year ago

thanks!!!

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Stephanie s
Stephanie Yabout a year ago

Thank you

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Stephanie s
Stephanie Yabout a year ago

Thank you

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Stephanie s
Stephanie Yabout a year ago

Thank you

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Kelsey S
Kelsey Sabout a year ago

Ty

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Naomi Dreyer
Naomi Dreyerabout a year ago

Gender expectations are slowly changing.

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