What if the problem with gender roles isn't “toxic” masculinity or “toxic” femininity? What if it’s our expectations?

Lately, my 9-year-old daughter has been saying she is bad at math -- and she rarely says she is bad at anything. Yet, when I got her report card, I saw she did well in that very subject. I discussed this with her, and said, “If you keep telling yourself this, you may start to believe it.”

It got me thinking about expectations we may inadvertently place on our kids based on their gender. Boys and girls are biologically different, no question, but research has shown that from very early on we treat boys and girls differently based on our preconceived notions of masculinity and femininity.

Take the term “toxic masculinity” (a term I’m not fond of, by the way). The men whose behavior that term refers to likely weren’t born that way. The “traditional” traits of masculinity have been seen as strength, leadership, stoicism, and emotional control. But for the little boy who is crying because someone said something mean to him and is told to “toughen up,” that admonition can cause him to think expressing feelings of sadness, grief, or depression is wrong. On the other hand, “traditional” traits of femininity include being nurturing, emotional, kind, and giving. This, too, when taken to the extreme can be detrimental; a little girl who is being assertive may be told she is being “bossy,” thus reducing the likelihood that she will assert herself in the future.

This has far-reaching implications for our children’s emotional and social well-being, the careers they pursue, their willingness to take risks -- even their romantic relationships. And as adults we may not even be aware that we are unwittingly communicating these gender expectations to our children or ignoring those long-term implications for social and emotional well-being.

Because boys are largely expected to “toughen up” and act stoically through their pain, they are more likely to lash out externally -- which could result in punishment at school or home. Girls, on the other hand, have a tendency to internalize their emotional pain, keeping to themselves and continuing to do what they need to do in school and at home. As a result, girls’ emotional pain can be missed since they are not bringing attention to it. In both these cases, the root cause of the pain is not addressed, which is a missed opportunity to teach the child -- boy or girl -- about healthy emotional coping skills.

This doesn’t just apply to parents; Perhaps more important than an individual child's strict adherence to rigid gender roles is how others treat them at an early age to foster adherence to those gender roles. Research has shown that teachers assume that male students will perform better in the sciences and math and expect more from male students. Those expectations lead to greater effort resulting in success, which drives the male students to perform better in those fields and eventually go into careers in the sciences or math. The reverse is true for female students; both parents and teachers can have lower expectations for female students in these areas and as a result, girls are less likely to put forth the effort and to pursue math and science careers.

So, as adults, what can we do to ensure we’re helping our boys and girls develop healthy coping skills? Here are a few tips:

  • Communicate reasonable expectations to all children, such as expecting your child to put forth effort in his or her studies and pursue areas of academic interest, regardless of gender.
  • Teach them to name and acknowledge the feelings they are experiencing. Talk with them about what is at the core of their emotional experiences.
  • Allow children to feel their feelings, and don’t discount them or suppress them. Remind children that negative emotions tend to come in waves and it is better to ride the wave rather than fight or suppress the wave. It will pass.

Simply put: the gender expectations we put on our children -- however inadvertent -- and how we communicate those expectations can have far-reaching implications. The fact is, all of us -- male or female -- feel joy, grief, pain, love, and happiness, and we should encourage children to acknowledge and express those feelings in appropriate, life-enhancing ways.

Jessica Glass Kendorski, PhD, NCSP, BCBA-D, is an associate professor and chair of the department of school psychology at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.