Child Discipline, Gendering, and Symbolic Interactionism
In the middle decades of the 20th century, pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock became an icon of what has been described as, depending on the speaker, a more progressive or more permissive attitude toward parenting. Spock was both lionized and condemned for his child advice books advocating nurturance of and kindness toward children, yet for all his alleged radicalism, Spock was deeply suspicious of gender neutral parenting. “Other societies assign roles to men and women that are quite unlike ours,” he wrote in 1974. “But no country I know of has tried to bring them up to think of themselves as similar. Such an attempt would be the most unprecedented social experiment in the history of our species.” (Martin 456-57) Such is the strength of traditional gendering of the young, which can be explained in significant part through the theory of symbolic interactionism. This gendering is primarily imparted through parents, who usually have been gendered in traditional manners and largely agree on the general parenting and discipline approach to their youngsters. More interesting, however, is when there is conflict between parents on this issue, or, even more compelling, an agreement in theory but an inability to carry out a gender neutral parenting style due to the overwhelming influence of their own traditionally gendered upbringings.
According to Wood, “symbolic interactionism claims that through communication with others we learn who we are and what that means in our culture.” (Wood 53) This includes our conceptions of gender and gender identity. Chris Brickell of the University of Otago, describes symbolic interactionism is one of “four different social constructionist approaches (that) allows us to address the multilayered character of the social in general, and gender and sexuality in particular,” the others being historicism, ethnomethodology, and materialist feminism. (Brickell 88) Symbolic interactionism is the one most prevalent in daily life, for, according to this theory, “there is no authentic or natural maleness or femaleness,” only what is imparted to the developing child through gendered socialization. (Brickell 93) Thus, gender is a social construct, not an innate biological creation. Through childhood in interactions with parents and peers, boys are praised for strength and independence, while girls are for being nice and considerate of others, usually in gendered terms. Both sexes are reprimanded for displaying behaviors not consistent with these constructs. In most societies, this process begins at birth and is hardened by the age of 3, even though there is significant divergence in how typical parents communicate with boys and girls by 6 months. This includes non-verbal communication-- for example, mothers withdrawing close physical contact with boys by this age. (Bruess 70) This is usually internalized by the child without peer pressure, but in interactions with peers it is expected that boys and girls will, “exhibit a certain competence” in fulfilling gender roles that are consistent with, “the normative conceptions of others” or be punished or ostracized. (Brickell 94) Though parents have an appreciable impact on their young children’s gender socialization, it is not as strong as that of the larger society, as evidenced by gay and lesbian parents’ observation that, “the strength of cultural stereotypes often overwhelms their earnest attempts to minimize their children’s gendered attitudes and behaviors.” (Bruess 71)
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- Mark Schauer (Author), 2009, Child Disciplining, Gendering and Symbolic Interactionism, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/230277