The socialization of children into gender roles begins even before a child is born. Finding out the gender of a child is one of the most anticipated aspects of life, because parents have preferences and have already set expectations based on the child's gender.
The decoration of the nursery, onesies, diaper bags, and other baby clothes in many cases are gender specific. There are some people who choose to not find out the gender, and they prefer gender-neutral attire and decorations. Usually, once the gender is determined, even the cake decorations for the baby shower will be either pink and feminine or blue and something else related to boys. From this point on, parents are known to interact with girls differently, for instance, talking with them more than they do (baby) boys.
You might find it interesting to answer this question by looking at the kinds of toys that parents by for their children at Christmas. Toys for girls normally consist of play kitchens, dolls, cooking items and so on whereas toys for boys normally consist of robots, soldiers, guns and action figures that they can use to fight with. Any wonder why we have gender as a phenomenon that is profoundly socialised?!
This discussion brings back some very fond memories for me. My father was an electrical contractor, and because I was extraordinarily lucky, he took me, a daughter, on the job with him from time to time, and at home, sat me down to show me how he repaired a lamp, fixed the toaster, or even replaced a plumbing fixture. He encouraged me to excel in math and science and never tried to push me in a traditional female direction. This might not be so unusual today, but I was born in 1950! My younger brother got the full benefit of this as well, and both of us, who also spent time in the kitchen with our mother, are very good cooks, too. Oddly enough, we both know how to sew a bit because our father taught us how to do that. My mother always claimed she failed that part of home economics. As I look back, I really have no idea how in the world we were lucky enough to have parents who did not force us into the molds of gender roles, but I am so grateful that we had the parents we did. This prepared both of us to be better mates and parents ourselves and to never be subjected to the gender limits so often imposed. My father is 89 now, and he still likes to teach his grandchildren, both male and female, a thing or two about wiring.
I find myself wondering if I would push my kids more towards sports if they were boys. I love sports and they have been a huge part of my life and yet I have not pushed my daughters towards them. I play with them when they want, but I do not tell them "let's go practice basketball." This may be a way of socializing them to believe that sports are not important for girls.
Parents tend to fulfill the gender roles that they EXPECT the child to have. It didn't phase me in the least when my oldest son played with his Toy Story characters, but when those action figures were passed on to his little sister it always struck me as odd that she wanted to play with them. I never stopped her, but it stuck me just the same. As I went shopping for her birthday presents I thought to myself, "Of course she should have a baby doll." I didn't think to add to the Toy Story collection. I also agree with above posts that the consumer world we live in feeds those roles -- it is nearly impossible to buy just a plain pair of pants in the girls department. They are all embroidered with flowers or butterflies or rhinestones -- something extra to make something as simple as blue jeans into something specifically for girls. It seems to be more of a trend for girls, but I am sure it works both ways.
Absolutely, the roles that children observe their parents assuming play a huge role in developing gender-based expectations in the childrens' minds. On the other hand, parents can also establish understandings that may not fit the "usual" pattern by creating situations for nontraditional activities. Some of the best bonding time my son and I spent as he was growing up was spent in the kitchen as he helped me cook, and now he loves to experiment and cook in the kitchen for himself and his friends.
Children are very adept at mimicking the social behavior of their parents, and parents are the key agents in socialization as it is. So simply being in the immediate environment of their children on a daily basis is one method of socialization. Another is the bonding activities that take place between mother and daughter and father and son. Gender-specific modeling is one way to describe that. Children also are very observant of the social interaction between mother and father, learning how the genders interact and what is considered socially appropriate.
This question is one dear to my heart as I have both a daughter and a son. Many ways exist to socialize children into gender roles. Clothing is one where only girls are allowed to wear pink or ribbons or dresses while boys wear blue, blue jeans, boots--anything which shows toughness. Toys are another way we create a division; girls get dolls to nurture while boys get army guys or trucks to be active and leaders in a game. Speech is another way where we separate gender roles such as policeman, mailman, garbage man instead of thinking in terms of neutral language such as police officer, mail carrier or garbage collector. Boys are told to "man up" and girls are comforted with nurturing words. The word men as in "all men are created equal" is supposed to include men and women though many women don't feel included when asked. When turned around to "all women are created equal" and is supposed to represent both women and men, I've never heard a man say that he felt included. My belief is that language is the most powerful because it is everywhere and can be so subtle in its gender role divisiveness.