Parents agonize over how to help their children so they will be optimally socialized for academic and professional success. And too when problem child behavior (defiance, aggression, teenage rebellion) presents itself, parents typically become diligent students in how to assist these children to change course. What gains far less attention, perhaps because it is a more intangible and abstract concept, is raising children for success in relationships.
Children internalize gender stereotypes as part of their conditioning.
Evidence suggests that higher levels of testosterone contribute to boys being more physically active and aggressive than girls. Supporting this biological predisposition, culture offers ways to fully exploit boys’ desire for physical release. We see in advertising and toys that boys are inevitably offered objects (superhero accoutrement, toys guns, power sticks) to reinforce their internal sense that power is the most important way for them to gain acceptance and connection. Media and family tend to socialize boys toward instrumental traits—i.e. dominance, power competition.
As early as toddlerhood, the omnipresent superhero image is eagerly absorbed. By the time they reach elementary school, many boys are thoroughly indoctrinated into believing that winning and power represent their value. The superhero prowess that boys are exposed to allows them to experience a sense of strength that is antithetical to being a small, vulnerable child. And of course, this can all be good fun. However, by the time they are in middle school many confront the reality that they are not as supreme as they thought. When boys are trained to believe physical prowess is their worth, the realization that they cannot live up to the superhero ideal can make boys as young as 12 feel defeated.
Some boys counter the fear of being exposed as a pseudo-superhero through acting out behaviorally, sometimes in a self-destructive manner, so as to feel a sense of power.
Similarly, girls are often socialized to experience their value through communal personality traits. Research suggests that certain brain differences (greater left brain/right brain communication) allow girls to learn language quicker than boys and also to have an ability to not only label but understand and control emotion at an earlier age. The downside of this biological reality is that girls learn early on the costs and rewards of social approval and social disapproval. Culture reinforces these tendencies to keep others at the forefront of their minds through offering girls toys that promote compulsive caretaking (dolls, kitchens) and excessive attention to beauty and physical image (Barbie, beauty vanities, play makeup). Like boys girls seek a sense of power, but based more on being liked and pleasing than being masterful superheroes. Girls are more apt to take in the opinions of others and struggle with differentiating what they know to be true vs. what others expect of them.
Families often contribute through encouraging daughters to get along with others, to be nice at all costs and to do well at their pursuits—to please their public.
Research suggest that girls have an easier time controlling physical energy than do boys and so become accustomed to hearing that they are good and pleasing at an early age. By the time they are in middle school they, like boys, begin to have more difficulty with the complexity that school and their social worlds bring. Many adolescent girls start to hear less often that they are good, perfect, pretty, and they take this shift personally so as to doubt themselves and their inherent goodness, which may leave them with an anxious need to feel good enough.
By the time little kids turn into teenagers they begin to act out these tendencies in their romantic relationships—unless they have been countered by other messages. A girl may find herself driven to powerful boys (“the bad asses”) who are not able to get to know her on any other level than how she can make him feel his prowess. As I describe in Having Sex Wanting Intimacy, Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships, girls in this situation are more caught up with being liked and desired than feeling sturdy in their own identity and with their own needs. This leads to the development of one-sided romantic relationships. Likewise, boys miss out on the opportunity to develop real emotional intimacy within themselves and, as a consequence, struggle to select partners that actually fulfill them on more than a physical level.
Even when we know better as parents it is hard not to be influenced by gender stereotypes. And wanting your child to fit in and be accepted by other children (the #1 desire of most school age children) means letting go some and allowing them to absorb the mainstream culture around play and toys. Instead of depriving a child of what he thinks every other kid has, counter these cultural messages simply by not letting it be the only message a child receives.
The attachment, the bond, the connection…the relationship…you have with your child and how healthy this connection is represents the strongest buffer to faulty cultural messages that take kids, and later adults, away from a source of happiness that has the capacity to sustain them their entire lives with well-adjusted friendships and healthy romantic partnership.
As burdensome as it may be to authority figures—parents, teachers, coaches, family friends, all adults in a child’s world are constantly modeling for children what to expect in their relationships and how to treat others. With the multitude of demands that life brings, it can feel daunting to accept this reality. Unlike setting your child to up to meet with a tutor once a week to improve academic scores, setting them up for healthy relationship development is a fluid concept that is occurring perpetually.
Parents do not need to be perfect but, as the renowned psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott aptly termed it, they do need to be good enough. Work to do these five tasks, at least 60 percent of the time. If you get it wrong, go back to your child, validate how you got it wrong and try again. Setting the stage for children to have healthy friendships and romantic relationships throughout their lives, means modeling that relationships are dynamic and can be improved through self-awareness and communication.
1. Tune In: Take in the full presence of your child through noticing what she is like as a separate entity from you. Like visiting a country for the first time, label to yourself what you notice about her and openly validate her likes, dislikes, and opinions. Validation is not necessarily agreement, but it does demonstrate respect and permission for her to be her own person.
2. Teach/Model Emotional Awareness: When very young, label his emotions and expand upon them. Ask him what he is feeling and, even when he does not know what he feels, continue to pay attention to him while he tries to figure it out. When you have a negative emotion, model healthy coping through expressing it in an adaptive way.
3. Offer Toys & Creative outlets (other than the obvious): Sort of like shopping on the exterior aisles of the grocery store, make sure you give kids wholesome alternatives to the mainstream princess/superhero juggernaut. The more you are in touch with who your child is, the easier it will be to find healthy outlets and toys that genuinely reflect their deeper interests.
4. Invite Aggression In: Although boys are socialized to be strong and physically dominant, parents are sometimes frustrated when their boys start to inconveniently act out physically. Put a punching bag in your garage, encourage his physical pursuits and similarly help him to put into words his anger and preferences. For girls, encourage sports and do not shy away when your little princess gets mad as heck. Welcome her anger in and teach her to let it be present in a way that does not overwhelm her or cause her to act in a self-destructive manner.
5. Model Empathy and Compassion: Sometimes it can be so hard to hear a child’s upset that parents can quickly short circuit to advice giving. This only breeds more aloneness as some kids beat themselves up for not doing whatever it is the parent says they should have done or should do in the future. Instead of this kind of advice/critical approach, offer warmth and tenderness. Model compassion by openly empathizing with your spouse when he or she lets you down. Teach kids that all beings are merely human and, when in safe and healthy relationships, it is okay to let some things go.
Keep the discussion going, click here to follow Jill on Facebook or here to follow Jill on Twitter @DrJillWeber. Jill P. Weber, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships