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The Gendered Child: Does Sex Of Sibling Influence Development Of Gender Role Attitudes?

One of the most widely celebrated festivals in India is 'Raksha Bandhan', where a sacred thread ('Rakhi') is tied by the sister on her brother's wrist, as a form of protection, which signifies a bond created where the brother's duty is to protect and care for his sister. Such a celebration may implicitly dictate different gender roles for the sexes, in terms of power relations and status, where it is the brother's duty to ''protect'' and ''take care'' of the sister, indicating that males must be brave, courageous, dutiful, and strong while females are passive, and need to be ''rescued'', thereby devaluing their autonomy and strength. This relation remains unquestionably accepted across the entire prism of society, handed down from one generation to the next, and children may adopt such normative standards by observing as well as actively taking part in such ''celebrations''. Centuries of customs have so embedded them in the collective psyche that the biases become one with the identity. Such practices throw a light upon the differential treatment of siblings according to their sexes, which consequently affects the development of different gender role attitudes.

Perspectives on Gender Development

The construct of gender can be studied from multiple disciplines and examined from various dimensions (viz. activities, personal social attributes, and attitudes). As a psychology graduate, I sought to understand the development of gender role attitudes through several perspectives, including the biological/evolutionary perspective, cognitive and socialization perspective. The biological perspective states that gender is the product of anatomical sexual differentiation, which is determined since conception; the cognitive perspective stresses the importance of children as active agents, constructing the meaning of the world around them and in turn being influenced by their surroundings. Lastly, the socialization perspective emphasizes the cultural context of an individual and normative influences which govern the development of gendered beliefs and behaviours. Although each perspective has its strengths and criticisms, the need arises for an integrated perspective. While the biological approaches set the limit under which social factors can influence gender development, cognitive approaches make it evident that construction of gender in children is not a passive process, rather children actively engage and influence their environment and acquire knowledge in a cultural context. This information evolves with time and changes according to one's environment. Moreover, the socialization agents (e.g. parents, peers, media etc.) model a child's views and behaviours about gender.

Gender-Role Attitudes

Gender role attitudes (GRA) are people's beliefs about the appropriate roles and obligations of men and women. They have been linked to various outcomes such as social perceptions, values and ability self-concepts (Ruble et al., 2006). Gender role attitudes are different from other areas of sex-typing as they do not reflect feminine versus masculine qualities, rather they dictate the degree to which children adhere to traditional stereotypes of female and male roles (McHale, Crouter & Tucker, 1999).

GRA is set on a continuum with two poles: egalitarian and traditional. Individuals with a traditional view support a gendered division of family labour, regarding women as homemakers and responsible for parenting while men are regarded as the wage earners. Individuals with an egalitarian view include a more equal view of participation in the family as well as occupational sector (Davis & Pearce, 2007; Katz-Wise, Priess & Hyde, 2010; Legge & Misra, 1998).

Researchers Matlin (1987) and Quiery (1998) found that gendered differences begin at birth itself, and stereotypical play starts at pre-school, where boys show more aggressiveness and competitiveness and girls prefer being cooperative and facilitative (Cramer & Skidd, 1992). A study by Bian, Leslie and Cimpian (2017) showed that gender stereotypes are endorsed and influence the interests of children as young as 6. Results revealed that 6 year old girls are less likely than boys to believe that members of their gender are ''really, really smart''. At the same time, 6 year old girls begin to avoid activities said to be for children who are ''really, really smart''. Findings suggest that gendered notions of high-level intellectual ability (brilliance, genius etc.) are acquired early and have a direct effect on children's' interests.

Siblings' Influence on development of Gender Role Attitudes

Sibling relationships are often the longest-lasting relationships in most people's lives. They can have an imperishable influence (Brody, 1998). Through siblings, children develop social understanding skills and interaction styles that can be transferred to peer communication (Parke, 2004). Siblings may influence gender role socialization in many ways. Like parents, they may model and reinforce sex-appropriate behaviour in their siblings (e.g. Sutton-Smith & Rosenberg, 1970).

McHale and Crouter (2003) also showed that children's involvement in household task varied according to the sibling sex composition at home. Older siblings usually performed more housework than younger siblings, but this difference was most prominent in older-sister-younger-brother dyads. Moreover, younger sisters did more housework than their older brothers. These results suggest that the presence of both sexes in the same household gives parents an opportunity to reinforce traditional gender role orientations. Thus families with mixed-sex sibling compositions may have more traditional gender role patterns, particularly as compared to families with a sister-sister composition.

Some studies have highlighted that older siblings particularly would model gender-appropriate roles, behaviours and qualities and reinforce such attributes in their younger sibling (McHale, Kim & Whiteman, 2006), therefore creating higher congruence between siblings' gender role attitudes. Other studies have revealed that siblings may engage in a de-identification process (Grotevant, 1978) referring to Adler's Theory of Individual Psychology (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956) which posits that siblings de-identify with each other during the course of their development, choosing distinguishable and non-identical roles and behaviours in their families in an effort to reduce competition and accumulate individualized family resources.

For the research, I had sought to explore the role of sibling sex compositions (younger brother- elder brother, younger brother- elder sister, younger sister- elder brother, and younger sister-elder sister) on the development of gender role attitudes across ages (8, 10 and 12 year olds). I asked younger siblings from a 2-sibling household, living in a nuclear family to participate in three activities. In the first activity, the children had to categorize various words (personality traits, occupations, activities etc.) as best suited for ''males'', ''females''', or ''both''. In the second activity they were asked to select a protagonist for a series of non-gender specific stories centred around various domains of excellence. The third activity involved obtaining the childrens' opinions on how strongly they agree or disagree over statements such as ''If a woman has a paid job (she goes out of the house to work), then a man should share the household work (washing dishes, washing clothes, cooking etc.)'', ''Boys should be allowed to play with toys like dolls.'', ''Girls should be allowed to have toys like model trains and cars.'' etc.

Results revealed that childrens' gender role attitudes are effected both by their sibling sex composition and by age, but there was no relation between the two variables. Female siblings with an elder sister endorsed more gender egalitarian attitudes than male siblings with an elder brother. Further a gendered response pattern was found on the domains of sports, bravery and courage, and freedom of choice. Male sibling with an elder brother attributed excellence to males, while female siblings with an elder sister to attributed excellence to females. 8-year-old children attributed excellence to males, more than 10 and 12 year olds. Finally, percentage based analysis revealed that male siblings with an elder brother categorized most words as male characteristics, while very few words were chosen as female characteristic across all compositions. With an increase in age, categorization become less demarcated in nature, as 12 year olds attributed more words as characteristic of both genders.

Implications of sex-typing of Siblings

The developmental patterns of acquisition of gender role attitudes have implications on the influence of socializing agents on children with respect to their attitudes and behaviours regarding gendered qualities. For instance, if the younger sibling in a family is in his/her middle childhood while his/her elder sibling is entering adolescence, cognitive capabilities of each individual will impact how one influences the other. The younger sibling may not pay heed to the model (elder sibling) as his use of gender-stereotyped knowledge becomes more flexible, while the adolescent sibling may feel the need to conform to societal pressures regarding gender-appropriate behaviours. Therefore more clarity about sibling relations on gender development may emerge by keeping normative changes in mind.


Thus the differential gender role attitudes in siblings according to their sex compositions in the family sheds light upon the adjustment and achievement related outcomes in siblings within the same family. While male siblings with an elder brother may show more masculine preferences, female siblings with an elder sister may show more feminine preferences. Such preferences and interests can affect their self-concept, including self-worth and efficacy. By linking themselves to a particular gender and conforming to the normalized conception of that gender, they create their own self-fulfilling prophecies about their own abilities.

Despite the differential treatment of children according to their sexes, as they grow up their attitudes are expected to become more egalitarian in nature. With increasing exposure to the world around them and with the advocacy of equal rights for men and women, especially on social media, today's children will hopefully grow up to challenge the existing norms in the society and de-establish the divisions of tasks, be it household or work space, according to gender. In light of this , it is also important to notice how the festival of Raksha Bandhan itself is being modified and re-interpreted with the ever-evolving society. Advertisements (such as those by Cadbury) now endorse the changing relations between brothers and sisters, where the sister is shown to reject the need for her brother's protection, as she can protect herself.



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