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Gender identity and gender roles - boys and their caregivers in the socialization process

Daniela Wagner


A child's identity is formed through individual engagement with the environment. The physical and mental faculties brought by the child meet a number of socialization bodies that convey behavior and norms. The identity is formed from their interaction. The family, the peer group as well as educational institutions and the media are among the most important socialization entities.

The development of gender identity in children

Money (1973, quoted in Mertens 1997, p. 27) provides a fitting description of the development of gender identity, who depicts it as experiencing and feeling a gender affiliation in accordance with subjective self-perception over a certain period of time. Gender role is therefore the expression of one's own gender in appropriate exchanges and interactions with others. Money views gender identity at a distance from the gender role, as the latter is largely due to stereotypical behavioral characteristics and subtle influences on society and its norms and rules (Mertens 1997, p. 25).

Just like identity, gender identity is not predetermined and fixed, but rather a process that is constantly checked and changeable throughout life. In relation to positioning in a world inhabited by women and men, gender plays an important, but not the most important, role. Rather, according to this understanding, the formation of gender identity is shaped by external influences (cf. Rendtorff 2011, p. 62). This includes the imagination and example of gender by mother and father as well as socio-cultural influences of society (ibid.). Rendtorff refers here to psychoanalysis, in which the view is taken that, from a biological point of view, there is no "purely" male or female being, since each gender also contains part of the other. Yet each person only belongs to one gender. Dealing with this in whatever way is a central starting point for the formation of gender identity (ibid., P. 63).

The process of developing gender identity is also significantly influenced by the environment. Because of their gender, children experience different behaviors towards them from birth, which they in turn strengthen or weaken in interactions with their environment and which lead them to an early, even if unconscious and uncontrollable "self-categorization" (Blank-Mathieu 1996, p. 14). The reactions of the child to the offers of the parents are mainly caused by stimuli that affect the child's interests or leave them unaffected. Nonetheless, the child's behavior also influences the gender-dependent dealings of his parents with him, which, depending on the extent and active participation of the child, leads to an initial acquisition of gender identity (ibid.).

Mertens (1997) makes it clear that the external gender assignment of the child triggers a number of expectations that flow into the development of the child. This view is also supported by Ovesey and Person (1973, quoted in Mertens 1997, p. 27). The conception of gender conveyed by the parents stands in contrast to the appropriation of the gender role, which develops through continuous development and dynamics as well as the subjective experience of one's own gender in interaction with others.

Children are able to perceive gender-specific differences from an early age and to categorize them according to male and female. Hubrig (2010) provides an overview of the cognitive performance that children of different ages are capable of. From about the third month of life they can distinguish between voices and from the ninth month faces of women and men and assign them (Hubrig 2010, p. 43). At the beginning of the second year of life, children make a general distinction between male and female and can attribute behavior to one gender. They themselves are not yet aware of their gender and use men and women as categories such as animals and toys in everyday life (ibid., P. 44).

According to Kohlberg's approach, children in kindergarten gradually develop gender awareness, which leads to an enormous leap in development, which leads to an increasingly intense confrontation with their own gender. Kohlberg presents this in five steps, which are made up of the assignment of one's own gender and that of others, knowledge of gender-dependent attributes (stereotypes), the high evaluation of one's own gender and the achievement of gender constancy (Hubrig 2010, p. 48) . From around the age of three, stereotypical clothing or behaviors such as applying makeup (women) or wearing a beard (men) provide orientation when delimiting the sexes. Children have the urge to want to act out and demonstrate their discovered gender affiliation, so that they can often be found in game situations with same-sex groups that are typical for them and can be observed in compliance with the corresponding behavior. At around five to six years of age, they gradually achieve gender constancy in which they are guided by the certainty that their gender is irreversible, even if they take on the opposite-sex role in the game or disguise themselves. Information about one's own gender is increasingly becoming the focus of interest; Boys and girls deal more often with gender-typical content, internalize it, for example express it through imitation and thus continuously shape their self-image (ibid., P. 46 f.).

If gender identity is not innate but a component of socialization, it can be assumed that gender-specific characteristics and behaviors can be learned and are dependent on the gender-specific behavior shown by caregivers and other people in the immediate environment. However, this assumption is not a sufficient explanation for the development of gender identity.

The influence of family caregivers on the development of boys

The pluralization of lifestyles and the emergence of new types of families in the course of social change over the last few decades have brought about a convergence of paternal and maternal duties in family life (Keller 2011, p. 76).

On the meaning of mother and father

In the symbiotic phase, the relationship between the child and its parents is free of contradictions and conflicts, as their genders do not yet play a fundamental role and the child is able, under the appropriate conditions, to develop an early, intensive bond with both parents. As soon as the child detaches itself from the mother and begins to build an ego identity, it increasingly recognizes potential for identification in its parents in connection with their gender. The mother-daughter and father-son relationship is considered to be the relationship most strongly characterized by identification in the family system due to the fact that they are the same sex (Petri 2004, p. 70 f.). Nevertheless, the effects of parental behavior in relation to the child's gender identity must always be considered with due regard to "socio-cultural interpersonal, intrapsychic and biological dimensions" (Mertens 1997, p. 37).

According to Seiffge-Krenke (2004, cited in Watzlawik et al., P. 66), parental care and closeness are more important than the gender it conveys. Accordingly, each parent has the ability to accept the behavior of the other and bring it up in their upbringing if this is necessary. However, a major hurdle for single mothers is to compensate for the missing father, which can lead to an increased risk of discrimination in the areas of gender finding, school performance and psychosocial adaptability in the child (Watzlawik et al. 2007, p. 66).

Especially for the development of boys, both male and female parts are important in the upbringing (Weigand 2012, p. 84). With regard to the relationship between mother and son, Weigand (2012) shows what is special about it and - even more than in a relationship between man and boy - focuses on the required sensitivity on the part of the mother. Boys also seem to have more difficulties than girls in not getting the undivided love of their mother, since she in turn also has a love relationship with the father (Weigand 2012, p. 84).

The father as an authoritarian educational authority who sets boundaries, lays down rules and offers orientation is fundamental for the development of a child's ego identity and forms the foundation for the boy's healthy development (Petri 2004, p. 86; Weigand 2012, p. 86). The relationship between the two male family members is characterized by pride and a strong bond due to the fact that they are same-sex people. The father sees in his son, even more than the mother, a part of himself.

In these moments of identification, Petri (2004) recognizes the first, relationship-building basic elements that are reinforced by their reciprocity. In this context, the so-called "dialectic" (Petri 2004, p. 70) between father and son is spoken of, which is made up of identification on the one hand and demarcation on the other. The desire to be as close as possible to the father in terms of character, if not even like him, is in tension with the desire for independence and the natural development process of maturity and the will and character that develop from it. Nevertheless, this dialectic should not be seen as negative but as development-promoting for boys (ibid.).

Once the boy's motor skills have gradually advanced and he begins to walk, run and climb, the father increasingly functions as an attractive play partner and offers the boy exemplary behavior in numerous play situations. He shows his son "how destructive impulses can be converted constructively" (Petri 2004, p. 75). Bentheim and Murphy-Witt (2007, quoted in Weigand 2012, p. 59) emphasize the importance of the father as a male figure of identification for boys between the ages of three and six and the associated effects on gender identity. The father not only plays an important role as a figure of identification and play partner, but also has a great influence as a natural driver in the development of his child. The son, who looks up to his father and admires him for his size, strength and abilities, is challenged at the same time in his curiosity and joy of experimentation, his courage and urge to discover and his motor skills. This admiration can, however, also turn into competition (Seiffge-Krenke 2004, quoted in Watzlawik et al. 2007, p. 67 f.).

The father is more distant on the physical level than the mother, who makes a significant contribution to the upbringing by consciously directing childish behavior. On the psychological side, on the other hand, the father challenges his son, allows more independence than the mother and thus creates a different, significant form of closeness (Watzlawik et al. 2007, p. 41).

The stage in which father and son identify with one another is characterized by antithetical elements such as smallness and size, fear and admiration, closeness and demarcation, strength and weakness. The son tries to overcome his fears and rebels increasingly against his father during play, which leads to the fact that he focuses on the playful and aggressive development of his emotions. The father, on the other hand, recognizes the potential to reduce stress and aggression in play and also contributes to a dynamic in this interaction. The different benefits that both participants can derive from the game situation make it an indispensable element of the father-son relationship (Petri 2004, p. 77 f.).

According to Petri (2004), it is predominantly the fathers who support boys in developing their motor skills and who are strongly committed to teaching "male" skills such as climbing, boxing, handling technology and tools, etc. from the age of four to five Show son. Thus, at this age, sons benefit more than daughters from their fathers, whereby the relationship between the two male characters is more narcissistic than oedipal (ibid., P. 78 f., P. 86).

Nevertheless, it can be said that despite the importance of the father and other caregivers, the mother, if she is the primary attachment figure in the child's first months of life, has the greatest influence on the child's socialization and development (Hopf 2005, p. 86).

Siblings in the role of socialization partner

Siblings have a permanent, lifelong relationship with one another, and a blood relationship or at least a common history (Lüscher 1997, p. 20). Based on the findings of Havighurst (1963), Goetting (1986, cited in Box 2001) describes the developmental tasks of siblings with emotional support, friendship and camaraderie as well as mutual solidarity. Brody and Stoneman (1994, cited in Lüscher 1997, p. 20) add that siblings function as playmates, socialization partners, allies in the family or group of friends and as a learning model for desirable, negative or positive behaviors.

Siblings offer each other many learning opportunities through imitation, role model function and cognitive and social confrontation (Lüscher 1997, p. 47 f.). Due to their intimacy, duration and belonging to an age group, sibling relationships can be more intense than parent-child relationships.

The mutual influence among siblings depends on external framework conditions (social and economic circumstances, family constellation, especially with regard to gender and sibling ranking, cultural background) and factors within the sibling relationship (Bank / Kahn 1994, quoted in Lüscher 1997, p. 21). Strong ties between siblings can have negative consequences such as dependency on one another, which can be increased by the neglect and indifference of the parents (ibid., P. 22).

Frances Schachter (1976, quoted in Lüscher 1997, p. 32) points to the demarcation of siblings as part of the identification process and makes it clear that same-sex siblings with a small age gap identify with one another strongly on the one hand, and differentiate themselves from one another and try to find other paths on the other . Due to different talents and interests, roles are allocated from which it is important to distinguish. This process, which is also referred to as "de-identification", takes place at the latest in school age and, according to Bank and Kahn (1994, quoted in Lüscher 1997, p. 32), leads to a loss of actual identity, since the forced demarcation under Siblings to renounce individual inclinations and interests.

Another important factor in relation to siblings as a socialization instance is the sibling ranking and the associated competitive behavior with one another (Sulloway 1997, quoted in Bertram / Bertram 2009, p. 108). According to Sulloway's attempted explanations, the sibling position within the family has a decisive influence on social behavior and the later life of the individual children. Rivalry among one another can also lead children who feel disadvantaged to try to get their parents' attention at all costs. With regard to the respective design of the life path, Sulloway pointed out that predominantly later-born children tend to break out of traditional family conditions, to take a completely different life path than their siblings and to devote themselves to unconventional tasks. On the other hand, firstborns tend to orientate themselves more towards the attitudes of the parents and consequently embark on a life path that adheres to the values ​​of the parental home (Sulloway 1997, quoted in Bertram / Bertram, p. 109).

Various constellations among siblings with regard to gender can also have a special meaning for the development of boys. For example, the older brother is not in a competitive relationship with his younger sister and sees his relationship with her as similar to that between mother and father. Regardless of whether the sister is younger or older, the brother is in a responsible, leading position towards her (Toman 2002, p. 18 f.).

The tendency to take over leadership is even more evident in the oldest brother of brothers. The care, the attempt to patronize, the desire for recognition and loyalty as well as his concern about the future of his brothers are characteristic of the oldest boy in this sibling constellation, according to Toman (2002). This is also reflected in the later career choice. Often times, men who are the oldest brothers of brothers can be found in positions such as judges, teachers, social workers, and other responsible professions.In the youngest brother of brothers, the desire for recognition and appreciation coincides with that of the oldest brother, but it is not suitable for the role of leader. Later on, he tends to opt for professions in areas such as music, drama or art.

In this context, the boy's situation as an only child must also be viewed. The male only child is more used than others to contact with older people and behaves accordingly more adult. Due to the undivided attention and support of his fellow human beings in the immediate environment, he is often ahead of his classmates at school and is more interested in topics that arise from the adult world. He gives his friends a special place, identifying himself with other only children or oldest brothers. Like any other boy, he identifies with the same-sex parent. According to Toman (2002, p. 148 ff.), The father's sibling position and the associated parenting behavior towards one's own son play a major role here).

The relevance of caregivers outside the family

In the socialization process, children encounter other people in addition to their primary caregivers - the mother and father as well as other family members - who have a decisive influence on their development. In the crèche or kindergarten, they may meet children of the same age and same sex for the first time. Especially when they take full-time places, they are accompanied by educators through a large part of their early childhood. The influence of these two extra-family groups on the development of boys is shown below.

Friends of the same age and playmates - influences of the peer group

The importance of the peer group in adolescence is shown in numerous observations and studies. Andresen and Hurrelmann (2010, p. 122 f.) State that this importance is now also attached to the peer group in (early) childhood, since their effects on the personality development and self-esteem of the child are diverse. The well-being of a child in kindergarten or elementary school essentially depends on how well they are integrated into the group of their peers and how pronounced their right of co-determination is within this group (ibid., P. 126).

Blank-Mathieu (1996) explains the importance of the peer group, especially for boys in kindergarten, by presenting the tests of courage and rituals for group admission that are characteristic of boys' groups. Based on her surveys, she shows that boys already know after a few days in kindergarten how to behave with other boys (Blank-Mathieu 1996, p. 68). Metz-Göckel (1993, quoted in ibid.) Goes on to say that the peer group eliminates the boys' insecurities and gives them a space to practice strategic male behavior in the form of tests of courage and competitions.

The self-dynamics that develop in groups of boys can be easily observed in practice. Within this constellation, there is a common idea of ​​masculinity in the form of superheroes and other strong male figures who serve as a model and orientation in living out being young. In addition, boys can differentiate themselves more strongly from others (girls) in the group, which has a major influence in particular on the development of gender identity and one's own understanding of roles (Blank-Mathieu 1996, p. 70 f.).

The peer group has a further function in relation to its own behavior. Here it acts as a "control instrument" that is used to review one's own actions. Often in a boys' group a boy takes on the role of leader, to whom the other boys orientate themselves. Imitation, measuring forces and practicing behavior take place here. The group's own dynamic should not be underestimated, as it can have both positive and negative effects - especially with regard to channeling aggressive behavioral characteristics (ibid., P. 73).

Furthermore, the group moves independently of the adult world and has its own actions and rituals that can only be controlled and influenced to a limited extent by outsiders. The participation of each individual in group-internal processes and relationships also strengthens the feeling of self-efficacy and self-esteem (Rabe-Kleberg 2003, p. 87).

Educators in the role of institutional reference persons

For many years it has been discussed that childcare - regardless of whether it is private or public - is a space dominated by women. That is why there is increasing demand for more men in daycare centers.

With regard to the development of boys in particular, the question arises as to what importance should be attached to the gender of the educational reference person, especially as there have so far only been few research results in this field (Rohrmann 2009, p. 51). Rohrmann (2009) refers to attachment-theoretical findings from analyzes by Ahnert et al. (2006), from which it emerges that the bond between girls and educators is better than that between educators and boys. This leads to the assumption that kindergarten teachers find it easier to build relationships with girls because they are more in line with their gender-typical ideas (Ahnert et al. 2006, quoted in Rohrmann 2009, p. 52). Furthermore, the teachers find it difficult to deal with the interaction patterns of boys, which are obviously different from girls, since they can identify themselves more easily with those of their own gender and understand them better.

According to Ahnert et al. (2006) understand that building relationships between boys and teachers is made more difficult by both sides and that boys consequently withdraw into their peer groups. Under appropriate conditions, such a peer group can develop its own dynamic that drives the teacher into helplessness and can trigger avoidant behavior towards the boys (ibid.). This is also underlined by Blank-Mathieu (2012, p. 103) by stating that boys do not feel seriously accepted by educators and internally defend themselves against their instructions, whereas they tend to accept a man as an authority figure and are more likely to take advantage of his offers.

The importance of men and fathers has already been illustrated in this article. Blank-Mathieu (1996) refers in this context to Belotti, who emphasizes that the presence of a man in kindergarten can satisfy the need for time together with their own father and gives children the feeling of experiencing something great, strange and rare. This can help the children to find an inner balance (Blank-Mathieu 1996, p. 34).

In relation to boys and their search for male identity, the educator plays a major role, as he can act as an orientation and role model in kindergarten. In particular, boys who grow up in a female-dominated environment and without a father can be helped by an educator to discard role stereotypes taken from the media and to develop a new, realistic image of masculinity.

So far, the effects of educators on boys (and girls) cannot be scientifically proven. However, a small-scale study from Brandenburg takes up initial assumptions. The evaluation report published in March 2010 by PädQUIS gGmbh deals primarily with the review of the professionalism of educators who completed their training as part of the lateral entry model in Brandenburg and who have been working in day-care centers since then (Gralla-Hoffmann et al. 2010). A comparison of the process quality in the individual groups and participating institutions provided information on the extent to which the work and its quality differ depending on the respective gender and the qualifications of the skilled workers. The "Caregiver Interaction Scale" (CIS) served as an instrument to measure the quality of the educator-child interaction and the educator behavior in the areas of sensitivity, acceptance and involvement (cf. ibid., P. 13).

The study is not representative of all male employees in day-care centers, as it is particularly dedicated to men trained according to the cross-entry model. Nevertheless, it can flow into assumptions and theses about the quality of relationships between men and children. Although the effects of educators on the behavior of boys were not explicitly investigated, the observations showed that the interaction climate of educators in dealing with children does not differ significantly from one another (Gralla-Hoffmann et al. 2010, p. 19).


The text comes from my bachelor thesis entitled "The influence of caregivers taking into account gender on the identity development of boys up to school entry - A question about the necessity of men in elementary education" (Düsseldorf University of Applied Sciences, May 2013) and has just been revised.


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Daniela Wagner is an educator and B.A. in childhood education and family education. Your address is:

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41460 Neuss
Email: [email protected]