Being a child or an adolescent is not simply a biological stage of development. It is a social identity. People’s experiences with this identity emerge from a particular cultural and historical context as well as the process of socialization that takes place within their families. But many other social institutions assist in the process of raising children, often in ways that aren’t immediately apparent.
To see firsthand how such socialization works, visit a large shopping mall. Most malls today have children’s clothing stores (for example, Baby Gap). If yours doesn’t, go to one of the large department stores and find the children’s clothing section. Start with the infants’ clothes. Is there a difference between “girls’ clothes” and “boys’ clothes”? Note the differences in style, color, and texture of boys’ versus girls’ clothes. Collect the same information for clothes designed for toddlers, preschoolers, and elementary school age children.
Now find a store that specializes in clothes for preteens and teenagers. How do clothing styles differ along gender lines at this age level?
After collecting your data, try to interpret the differences you noticed. Why do they exist? What do these differences say about the kinds of social activities in which boys and girls are expected or encouraged to engage? For instance, which clothes are “rugged” and which are “dainty”? How do such differences reinforce our cultural conceptions of masculinity and femininity? Turning your attention to teenagers, how do popular clothing styles encourage sexuality?
The next stop on your sociological shopping trip is a toy store. Can you detect a boys’ section and a girls’ section? How do you know? How do the toys differ? What sorts of interactions with other children do the toys encourage? Competition? Cooperation? Which toys are designed for active play? Which seem to encourage passive play? For what sorts of adult roles do the toys prepare children? Provide specific examples.
Finally find a bookstore that has a children’s book section. Which books are more likely to interest boys? Which will interest girls? Are there different sections for “boy” and “girl” books? What are the differences in the sorts of characters and plots that are portrayed? Does the bookstore have a section that contains books designed to help adolescents through puberty? If so, do these books offer different advice to adolescent boys and girls?
Use your findings in all these areas – clothing, toys, and books, — to analyze the role that consumer products play in socializing children into “appropriate” gender roles. Is there more or less gender segregation as children get older? Do you think manufacturers, publishers, retail outlets, and so on are simply responding to market demands (that is, do they make gender specific products because that’s what people want), or do they play a role in creating those demands.
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