The Hidden Curriculum of Infant Gender Socialization

By Annie Garrett, M.Ed. (Estimated reading time: 6 minutes) 

Two siblings playing with a dollhouse together. Image courtesy of Vlada Karpovich via Pexels. 

Ready to get deep, fast? Here goes: we carry the wisdom of generations into our parenting decisions. Large or small, whether we are cognizant of it or not, the human thought that precedes us is within us, influencing what we think and what we do. This can obviously be a good thing. Think of the times you were able to successfully read your crying baby’s cues and address the source of their discomfort, for example. In the absence of Professor Google and Consulting Nurse, generations of our ancestors relied heavily on instinct and this ability was passed on to us, too. Yes, the wisdom of the generations lives in us, and this social imprinting can be a gift; it can be survival. But in some regards, it can also cause us to unintentionally parent in ways that disagree with our values or aspirations.  

As an infant-parent educator, an area where this frequently comes up is gender socialization. Parents who feel that their own gender socialization limited their fullest, healthiest expression of self may set out to free their children from these forces. We intend to teach our girls to be strong, our boys to be empathic, and to fully support them if they identify as neither girl nor boy. But research suggests that the messages we send our children — most often unknowingly — may undermine these intentions.  

Research on Gender Bias in Parents of Infants 

In a study reported in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, moms of 11-month-olds were asked to estimate their child’s ability to crawl on an inclined surface. There are in fact no actual gender differences in motor ability in infancy. However, the mothers underestimated what their daughters were capable of and overestimated what their sons were capable of. The infants were tested immediately after their mothers predicted their abilities, and the tests showed no difference in performance by gender. The parents were unaware that they carried this bias.  

In a study done by the American Academy of Pediatrics, parents were evaluated on the frequency with which they speak with their infants. The objective of this experiment was to test the hypothesis that mothers speak more with infants than fathers. The study did confirm that mothers provide the majority of early language interaction. It also revealed that mothers are significantly more vocal with girls than boys. Again, the parents were unaware that they carried this bias.  

Relating research and early childhood education 

Just five years ago, I took a standard course on child development at a local community college. The text asserted that there are differences in young children by gender; girls are more likely to be calm and attentive while boys are more likely to be active and disruptive, for example. Having taken some gender studies courses in my undergraduate career, I was skeptical of this information. Hogwash, I thought. Fast forward a summer, and I found myself doing a practicum with four and five-year-olds at a local preschool. Well, the girls were calm and attentive, and the boys were active and disruptive. The difference was far from subtle. So I started to question my gender studies courses instead of my child development course. Hogwash?? I wondered.  

So which was really the hogwash? Maybe neither. Fast forward four more years, and I become an infant-parent educator. I began to learn about studies like these on infant parenting, leading me to believe that the way we socialize infants results in exaggerated differences in our children’s expressions and behaviors, from a very young age. So by age 4-5, the differences were there, but implicit socialization was a key reason for it. Says neuroscientist Lise Eliot, author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It, “Infant brains are so malleable that small differences at birth become amplified over time, as parents, teachers, peers — and the culture at large — unwittingly reinforce gender stereotypes.” 

So how do we break the cycle of harmful gender socialization? 

Given the depth of this unconscious bias, I suggest starting with awareness. Read, watch, and learn from websites like The Genderbread Person. Know that more parents are choosing self-determination or self-identification, meaning that they will not label their child’s gender in infancy but instead allow their child to discover and reveal their identity in their own way, in time. There is a growing movement and community for those who choose self-determination. But even for those of us who go with labels, there are ways we can act to disrupt unwanted infant gender socialization. There are the obvious things, such as attire, names, and toys. These will clearly influence the way the world treats your child.  

But what matters most is the way you treat your child.  

You as a parent are your child’s first and most important teacher. Ask yourself: What is my view of my child? Are there any ways I may be unintentionally influencing my infant to be weaker or more aggressive based upon their gender?  

In education, this is called the “hidden curriculum.” It is the bias the educator carries that they are unaware of, which can have a pervasive influence on the student.  

Here are a few things you might consider: 

  • Our hands are teachers of infants. Infants learn through their bodies, through sensation. The way we handle our babies is one of the ways we teach them about who they are, and their place in the world. Are your hands more gentle if you see your baby as female, teaching her that she is delicate? Weaker? Are your hands more aggressive if you see your baby as a boy, teaching him that he can handle more?  
  • Our words are a component of the hidden curriculum. We all have a curriculum with our infants, whether we plan to or not. Take note of the tone you use with your infant. Do you use a tone of respect regardless of gender? Do you give full emotional support to all genders when they are crying?  
  • The materials we choose are perhaps a more obvious component of our curriculum. Are you building up nurturing abilities by offering a doll as a toy to your infant regardless of gender, and encouraging their use of it? Are you offering spatial awareness toys such as building blocks to all children and encouraging their use of it?    

The tendency to treat people differently according to their gender may be ingrained in us. Breaking this lifelong habit is challenging. It may feel disruptive. Find accountability in a partner or caregiver who shares your goal. Find accountability here, in a likeminded parenting community (hey, PEPS friends!). And ultimately, may you find your child as they truly are.  

Annie Garrett, M.Ed.
Annie Garrett, M.Ed.

Annie is an Infant-Parent Educator at South Seattle College and the Manager of the Early Childhood Education Bachelor of Applied Science Degree at North Seattle College. She is a rather passionate fan of tiny humans and the not-so-tiny humans who support them. She also volunteers as a PEPS Group Leader. Reach out to her if you or your PEPS Group want to learn more about this topic or Infant Co-Op  (one of Seattle’s best-kept secrets!) at teacher.annie.garrett@gmail.com.

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