According to the social learning theory, gender is a learned set of behaviours which children acquire through 3 processes, observation, imitation and reinforcement. The theory proposes that a child’s gender identity is the result of post natal exposure to gender seen in the media, gender roles which are reinforced by parents, peers and role models, and gender roles that are displayed in schools. In these areas, children are exposed to repetitive streams of behaviour and from these they learn what is and what isn’t acceptable for their gender. Parents reinforce behaviour that they deem gender appropriate in their children. This is frequently done via differential reinforcement, whereby the children are rewarded for gender-appropriate behaviour, however are not rewarded for any other behaviour. For example, parents will reward girls (e.g. by giving them lots of attention) when they behave in a feminine manner, but will not be rewarded if they behave in a masculine manner; thus further reinforcing the child to behave in a feminine manner. Parents can also punish children for not performing gender-appropriate behaviours in order to rear them towards a certain gender.
There is a plethora of research support for the role of parents in reinforcing gender roles. For example, Smith & Lloyd found that mothers chose gender-appropriate toys for their children (e.g. dolls for girls or footballs for boys) and responded more actively if a boy increased his motor activity (a typical masculine trait), conveying the role of differential reinforcement in gender development.
Despite the evidence showing the influence of parents, Maccoby et al. found no significant differences in the extent as to which girls and boys are reinforced for aggressiveness or autonomy, two things which vary greatly between genders. Various other studies have also found few gender differences in terms of dependency, discipline, encouragement, or parental warmth. These findings refute the influence of parents in establishing gender roles.
On the contrary however, Block has research evidence contradicting that of Maccoby et al. Block found that girls are reinforced for dependent, empathetic and emotional behaviours. Boys are reinforced for emotional control and independent behaviours. This supports the claim that the SLT can explain gender role differences.
Furthermore, Huston found that even though parents believe they treat children equally, they do respond quicker when girls become aggressive than boys. This supports that parents do treat children in stereotypical ways.
On the other hand, Daglish has also challenged the role of parents since he claims that not all parents who…