Sex-Role Development in the Family Life Cycle, Research Paper Example


Within the Family Life Cycle are stages that family members pass that are conducing of their socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and culture. Transitioning to each stage are stressful, as family members can be interrupters or allies. In some stages family members may come across a difficulty in the early stages where child development is pertinent. Families will become stuck in the family development and overall become stuck in the family life cycle. A focus on family development with the aid of notable therapeutic techniques in order to address the problem.

Both parental units’ serves as an important fixture when the family structure, when one parent is not involved it creates an unbalanced within the structure. Numerous studies have studied the importance of Fathers, as within the North America, there is a greater percentage of families with fatherless homes. When the father is missing within the family, children will sometimes act out, and they enlist the help of family therapists that are trained in family issues and development cycles in order to provide the best possible treatment for the client and their family. This research is utilized to give a thorough overview on the importance of sex role development within the family life cycle and the types of treatment needed to help clients deal with loss of the father’s role in child development.


Families develop different, each family is structured not like the other, and each dynamic in the family is different from their neighbors.  Families are considered a very significant institution and function within society. “No system in American society has been more circumscribed by normative patterns than has the family.” (Zeldicth, 1957)  In families are where children develop and learn about reproduction, provide emotional support, and form relationships. Family structure is characterized by two adults that serve as the mother and the father and their children either their own or adopted into the family. Although times have change and the family structure has changed as well, the family unit is supported by this framework. According to many sociologists, the family unit is the key factor in maintaining a proper society. The family is responsible for teaching their children values, morals, and how to behave in society. “Families deal with basic human needs–sexual, economic, reproductive, educational, and disciplinary. Without provision for meeting these needs human society would cease, and human life would cease as well.” (Martinson, 2001) It is sequential that the family function within a cycle or transition stages throughout their life span. Therapist are tasked with exploring the family dynamics in coming up with solutions in order to help solve problems in order for families to become a better unit.

Human development takes shape as it moves and evolves through the matrix of the family life cycle, embedded in the larger socio-cultural context.”(McGoldrick, Carter, Preto, 2011) The family life cycle works as a larger social context that sets the framework for development within an individual’s life span. The family life cycle may differ in each family dynamic however the stages are distinctively parallel. Families can experience predictable stages throughout the life cycle each being influenced by the socio-economic status, the culture, and the ethnicity. Often the transition between the stages in the family life cycle can become stressful and phases are seen where the family can often become stuck in the cycle.  The family life cycle consists:

  • First Stage: Leaving Home (single adults), the individuals differentiate themselves from their families in order to find their own identity. They develop intimate relations and establish their own financial responsibility.
  • Second Stage: The joining of families through marriage (new couple). This stage forms the formation of marriage and realigns their relationship with their extended families.
  • Third Stage: Families with Young Children, adjusting into the marriage system they make way for child (ren) in their lives joining in on the financial, household, and childrearing responsibilities.
  • Fourth Stage: Families with adolescents. The shift in the parent/child relationship can allow for the adolescents to move in and out of the system. The parents focus on their marriage and career issues as their focus shifts toward caring for an older generation.
  • Fifth Stage: Children leave the nest and moving on. The marriage needs to renegotiated, and the parents form new adult relationships between them. This relationships are also realigned with in-laws and grandparents. The parents soon deal with caring for their parents and their death.
  • Sixth Stage: Families in Later life. Families accept the shift in generational roles. The parents become older, and their must maintain their interests in each other and the family. They support their adult children and their families, and the children accept their roles as caring for their parents. The children are now face with dealing with loss, death, and the parents prepare for own funerals.

The cycle then repeats itself for the next generation. Within these cycles however are many phases that can leave families stuck. The transitions to each of these stages requires much work, couple commitment, and learning to live as a unit. In the family the labor must be divided equally, and when the families began to parent their first child, the roles must be successfully negotiated. The third stage of families with young children can cause many complications. Parents may feel stress of the new addition to their lives, they are unprepared, and the new mother may feel overwhelmed. According to McGoldrick, the third stage is the one most often troubling because of the profound realignment in of family relationships. The families have to deal with purchasing a bigger home, not an adequate amount of money saved so their financial positions may not be at the level they desire. The child is their first priority and their necessities of buying for the child’s needs. When moving to the fourth stage of raising adolescents the boundaries and the relationship must be re-adjusted. The financial position may be a little better, these opportunities allow for the mother to return to work, however the needs of the children remain a priority. Within these two stages are the most problematic for families, but they also serves as a critical component for the development of gender roles within children.

Early Child Development

When children are conceived parents generally began to process the socialization of children in preparation of the child’s arrival.  It is no secret that when the children arrive they are already molded and introduce to factors that coincide with their gender, girls wear pink, and boys wear blue. “An ecological perspective on the role of the family in children’s and adolescents’ development holds that knowledge of the larger environments in which families are embedded is central to understanding the ways in which families work to socialize children.” (McHale, Crouter, Whiteman, 2003) Parents play a central role in development from the way they shape their children’s behavior and actions through their displays of affection, encouragement, warmth, and self-control. Much research has been published on parental roles in gender development. “How individuals develop a “gendered” self and gender-typed differentiation has intrigued researchers of human behavior for as long as social development has been a field of empirical study.” (Martin, Ruble, Szkrybalo, 2002) Most research has been centered on observations of young children and the socialization process in the homes. Several theories have been formulated on gender development which include, Mischel’s Social Learning Approach and Kohlberg’s Cognitive-Developmental Approach. One of the most present theories is by Bussey and Bandura’s Social-Cognitive Theory (SCT) of gender development and differentiation. Citing that past theories are invalid due to they do not include Huston’s call for researchers to develop a more comprehensive approach. The approach should include concepts of preferences, identity, and behavior that included the developmental influence of biology, cognitions, and social influences. (Martin, Ruble, Szkrybalo, 2003)

Bussey and Bandura theory integrates all these facets as it represents, “a particular view of how gender-related behavior is acquired and maintained, based on contemporary social learning theory.” (Martin, Ruble, Szkrybalo, 2003) Walter Mischel’s theory of social learning emphasized the importance of environmental influence in gender development. When boys or girls exhibited behavior that coincided with their gender they were rewarded. In the children’s eyes, because they were praised for acting like a boy then they must be a boy. Unlike Mischel’s Kohlberg’s theory of Cognitive Development, he emphasized the importance of children learning about their placement into the gender roles, such as behaviors that because there were a certain gender then they must like doing what a boy or what a girl normally does. As time progressed other theories were pushing for cognitive approaches for social forces shaping gendered type behavior. “Over time however, both approaches have moved toward the middle ground, with cognitive theorists showing more interest in the environmental factors that influence the construction and content of gender cognitions and learning theorists considering more seriously how cognitive and internal factors influence gender development.”(Martin, Ruble, Szkrybalo, 2013) What came out each approach is the underlying influence of biological and environmental factors in gender development.

Kolhberg’s Cognitive Development Theory focuses on a Piagetian analysis of age related changes related to cognitive development. The central focus of the theory is on gender constancy that is broken down into three stages: children’s growing realization of knowing their gender identity; recognizing their identity does not change over time, or gender stability; and recognizing that their identity is not affected by changes they do to their appearance, traits, and activities (known as gender consistency). When children achieve these three stages their gender with take precedence in their how they react to gender norms, relevant attitudes, and their behaviors. The theory emphasizes that the gender development is constructed internally by the child and not socialization agents. Ultimately it charges that the motivation to masters these behaviors is the driving force in gender development as children will seek to bring their own perspectives in line with their developing knowledge about their genders. (Martin, Ruble, Szkrybalo, 2003)

The problem that lies with this theory is it does not factor in that the young children observe can be misleading as they show a phase pseudo-constancy. Children that are younger than 4 usually have no choice in their gender socialization. Their behaviors are only mirrors of their parents forced choice gender actions. One of the more important factors to point out is that even when children understand the genital basis of the gender differences doesn’t mean they still comprehend gender constancy. Although correct in his theory he was wrong on the motivational signifier. Martin et al, suggest that, “The crucial cognitive achievement in Kohlberg’s view is children’s recognition of the categorical significance of gender, which in turn motivates them to comply with gender norms at a particular point in development.” (Martin, Ruble, Szkrybalo, 2003) Cognitive learning are a more current and popular approach in gender development.  Children develop awareness of gender labeling and gender identity at a young age, it is reflected in their behaviors and often in their toy selections. The current theories are a blend of social learning theory and cognitive learning theory as they are indistinguishable in the knowledge obtained in the behavior of children during observational learning where expectations of gender related beliefs guide their behaviors.

Family Influence in Child Development

In the early years of children they begin to associate gender with their identity which influences their choices and behaviors. During this phase their gender development is based on the reinforcement of what gender they are. As they get in to the adolescent stage is when they seek parental influence in sex-role development. When children are at a young age is when all their needs are met within the family. As the child grows into adulthood the needs are met by their parents and people within his family structure. Adolescents seek guidance from parents and peers in choices and behavior. Their stability is formulated from their parents helps to encourage the adolescent in social relationships with those around them. When children have two parents within the house they are able to see the two distinct roles that each parent play in the family. The girls generally will follow mother’s role in nurturing, cleanliness, cooking, etc., and the boys will generally follow the father’s role in working with their hands, and enjoying physical activities. “Parents encourage their sons and daughters to participate in sex- typed activities, including doll playing and engaging in housekeeping activities for girls and playing with trucks and engaging in sports activities for boys (Eccles, Jacobs, & Harold, 1990) Studies have suggested that parents don’t have much of a role in gender development but contrasting studies suggest that parents play a pivotal role in sex-role development during adolescence. Development is influence by several factors including biological, social, and environmental. The role of the family unit is significant in creating a healthy and stable environment for children to be nurtured and form relationships, and ideologies. “While both mothers and fathers contribute to the gender stereotyping of their children, fathers have been found to reinforce gender stereotypes more often than do mothers.” (Ruble, 1988) This couldn’t be more evident in the amount of research and attention given to the growing number of single parent homes where the mother is the primary caregiver.

Why the father sometimes leaves the family is a matter of going back go to the family life cycle. Transitioning can be complicated due to stressors including struggles to adjust, crisis or issues in the family, divorce or loss of a parent. Marriage satisfaction is often low within these stages and the phase of divorce can lead to problems with the family structure. These problems are not only stressful for the parents but highly stressful for the children. Children are more susceptible to emotional and physical problems when there is stress within the family. Younger children will become sick, develop ulcers, or other health problems, and older children began to withdraw socially, and develop behavioral problems. According to McGoldrick et al. the dramatic shift in the life cycle patterns have caused; lower birth rate, longer life expectancy, the changing role of women, the rise in unmarried couples, increase in LGBT couples and families, high divorce and remarriage rate, increase in two pay-check households, an increase in single parent adoptions, and more importantly single parent households. (McGoldrick, et. al 2011)

The debate within the sociology field have debated for a long time on the importance that families play within society. The purpose of this debate can be traced back to Ernest Burgess who is considered the pioneer of American family sociology. The ideal of the nuclear family stimulated from the Industrial Revolution where many families moved north in search for better job opportunities at the many factories. Phrase coined in the 1950’s that saw more women staying in the homes becoming homemakers, more men and women were married, and many wanted to model after the Beavers, or Dick and Jane. The husbands were the breadwinners, and the children were all placed properly in their gender roles. As time progressed with the era of the Feminist movement that put more women back in to the workforce families were changing their dynamics. Husband and wives were bringing two checks, or in some instances husbands staying at home with the kids while the mother would go to work.

Presently families have included the grandparents or other extended family members to help in the family. Today many changes have occurred that has become factors in child development. Immigration, the increase in minorities, increase in same-sex couples adopting and forming families has changed the family and social dynamic. Development is heavily influenced by ecological factors of culture, ethnicity, SES, and community and historical factors.  Many studies have suggested that poverty in families is due to ecological factors that affect the relationships of the two parental units. Poverty plays a role in creating a major disadvantage compared to children who live a comfortable lifestyle. Their developments are lagging behind their other peers and the family unit is usually the underlying problem along with other ecological factors.

The normative dynamic now is where the mother is a single parent raising the family. This family unit is one of the most common and growing within North America. Over 36 percent of families have an absent biological father, and percentage is increasing. “One of the greatest changes in living patterns in the U.S. in recent years is the increase in single person households, which now represent 26 percent of U.S. households, up from 10 percent in 1950 (Francese, 2003) The role of the father is significant in both girls and boys, they impact a profound influence on the sex-role development of the daughter’s relationship with future men, and boy’s development on treating women in their future. The family cycle plays a pivotal role. “Thus, trust, autonomy, industry, and the formulation of an identity separate from his family are supposed to carry a child to young adulthood, at which point he is suddenly supposed to know how to “love,” go through a middle age of “caring,” and develop the “wisdom” of aging.” (McGoldrick et al, 2011) Fathers can be absent in several ways either through death, neglect, leaving during childhood, divorce, or identity never known which all lead to significant effects in child development.  According to Krohn and Bogan absent fathers are “those who do not interact with their children on a regular basis and consequently do not play a significant role in their development.” (Krohn & Bogan, 2001).

Case Study

African American families have the highest number of single-parent households in America, and the number is increasing for all races. In this study, “African American, White and Latino Fathers’ Activities with their Sons and Daughters in Early Childhood.” The fathers that were White, African-American and Latino were all observe in interacting with their children and significant developments that the children exhibited. This case explores the role of the father within the families, the client would be dealing with the loss of the father’s role during their middle years to adulthood.  “In general, research has indicated that children who experience fathers’ absence from the home at various points during childhood are more likely than other children to display internalizing problems, such as sadness, social withdrawal, and anxiety, as well as externalizing problems, such as aggression, impulsivity, and hyperactivity,” (Pougnet, 2011) The fathers were typified as low-income ethnically divers with their children being in preschool years. The study addresses three goals; documenting the types of daily activities that fathers in engage in and how the activities change in the first years of their children lives. Secondly, to examine whether the activities differ by the child’s gender, and third to advance the knowledge of gender socialization in diverse populations based on income and ethnicity.  (Leavell, Tamis-LeMonda, Ruble, Zosuls, Cabrera, 2011)

Fathers play a key role in socialization of genders within all cultures. The involvement in the early years is crucial to the development into adolescences where they form outside relationships, reform relationships with their parents, and develop their ideologies. Parents engage different with their daughters and sons they exhibit the same affections, responsiveness, and warmth, but their activities they do with them differ. Eco-cultural theories place that parents are “social partners” with their children that primarily engage in activities that are a reflection of cultural views, and gender practices. The activities that parents engage in with their children then shape the child’s development in behaviors, preferences, relationships, and skills. These activities can be daily routines in which they mirror in eating, bathing, playing, and sleeping patterns. (Leavell et al, 2011) According to the research, the types of activities that the father engaged in included caregiving, physical play, literacy, and social visits with friends and family. In caregiving both parents play a central role in caring for the young children, physical play is enticing the children to play in forms of chess and other toys. The literacy activities were pivotal to children developing in languages, literacy, and providing teachable moments. Social activities embedded social integration that is beneficial to the children’s well-being, and helps during stressful events. The most important goal of the study was the focus on the father’s involvement in child gender development. “Children are influenced by multiple members of their families and social networks (e.g., McHale et al.2003), and culture and ethnicity may dictate different roles within a family (Peplau et al.1999).” (Leavell et al, 2011)

Fathers roles can differ among racial groups and can influence cultural notions about gender roles through the activities they engage in with their children. Fathers are found to be stronger in their attitudes towards gender stereotyped behaviors that encourage in children activities. Fathers although are important in both girls and boys development, they are specifically more significant in boys development. “Boys may be more sensitive to, and adhere more strongly to their fathers’ gender attitudes than girls.” (Leavell, 2011) According to research African American parents displayed equal child care responsibilities with their roles overlapping, the research highlighted that African American fathers were more involved than other ethnic groups in social interactions and care giving regardless of SES. (Leavell et al, 2011) They feel that they should be involved in their children lives financially, socially, emotionally, and physically. “Perhaps the development of a strong male identity is an important cultural goal that

African American fathers hold for their sons and they are thus more involved in daily activities with them to encourage this identity.” (Leavell et al, 2011)

Families when dealing with a child that is “acting out” because of the absence of the father they turn to family therapy. As a therapist it is pertinent to understand sex role development in adolescents. With the aid of the family life cycle, therapist must signal out the stage where the family is and how the family can be stuck in this stage. In developing the correct therapeutic technique to help the client, the family will work together to move forward in the family life cycle and create a nurturing environment.  In the particular case of this family, the client is African American, and the parents have recently divorce. The father is not totally involved in the life of the children because he has started a new family. The father is not always available when the client needs him and he struggles with problems in sex role development. The client may be acting out because confusion during puberty and how to display masculinity within the family. The family is in need of therapy that addresses the problems that are disrupting the family life at home, and in social situations such as school and with others. The therapist must emphasize the role that the mother plays when the father is absent, her response is important in helping the child cope more easily. When the father leaves because of divorce or abandonment the way that the mother copes greatly affects the attitudes of the rest of the family.

While trying to develop an understanding of the family dynamic the best option is family behavioral therapy that encompasses an intervention in order to address the behavioral problems presented and the family dynamics. Brief Strategic Family Therapy (BSFT) is the best in targeting the adolescent. BSFT is used in combination with Salvador Minuchin Structural Family Therapy. “Our Brief Strategic Family Therapy model has demonstrated its effectiveness in decreasing adolescent behavior problems and in improving family functioning among youth identified as at risk…” (Santisteban, Coatsworth, Perez-Vidal, Mirrani, Jean-Gilles, Szapocznik, 1997) Both therapeutic techniques are best suited for minorities in particular African Americans, due to needs of the targeted population because BSFT emerged working with urban minority families. Although in BSFT therapist can spend a short amount of time with clients, the change made to the family dynamic can force a positive change in the way the client behaves. BSFT with Minuchin approach makes the intervention briefer, targets behavior problems, and targets clients who are not willing to seek help. BSFT is best utilized when the family works together in joining and exploring the family dynamics and structures. Minuchin’s Structural Family Therapy is comprised of a psychotherapy method that addresses the problems within the family. The purpose of implementing this method is exploring the invisible rules with the family functions. The therapy will map out family relationships and pinpoint the dysfunction in the family. Unlike traditional therapy, Minuchin focused therapy sessions separating the client from the family by either seating or from behind a one way mirror. Change must be gradual so that steps taken can be lasting and useful beyond the therapy sessions.

The treatment for the client and the family include the initial phase to develop a working

therapeutic relationship that respects the gender, culture, and age of the client and the family. The therapist will assess the individual, systemic, and broader cultural dynamics. Then conceptualized the problems (behavioral, emotional, etc) that affect the family life cycle. In the session the therapist will define the goals of the treatment with the client. Usually in the initial session: the goals will be measurable, solvable, and observable goals. Emphasize the values of family sessions; along with individual sessions with the client. In both therapy techniques, Parent Management Training (PMT) is pertinent so that the present parent is aware of their influence, and changing the client’s behaviors in the home. The therapist serves as an educator whose primary responsibility is to effect a change in the parent’s responses toward a child or adolescent. The treatment is based on the general view that the behavioral problems stem from the maladaptive parent-child interactions. The sex-role development problem is the cause of absent father in the home lending to gender confusion in puberty and problems in display “what is means to be masculine.” The different aspects of parent-child interaction with the father can promote aggressive and antisocial behavior in the client. In the sessions is important to remember that the behaviors are bidirectional of the child influences of the parent. Sometimes children engage in deviant behavior to help promote interactions. The goal is to alter or change the pattern of interchanges between parent and child so that prosocial, rather than disruptive behavior is directly reinforced and supported within the family.

Both combinations of therapy will be used in assessing the clinical problems that conceptualized from the standpoint of the functions they serve in the family as a system. Treatment is based on learning theory and focus on specific stimuli and responses that can be used to produce change. Treatment requires that the family sees the clinical problem from the relational functions it serves within the family. The focus would be on the family working together if possible getting the father involved, if not focusing on the immediate family, parent-child relation. Therapy would consist of lasting over 8-12 weeks in 1.5 or 2 hours sessions where it would involve collaboration, positive reinforcement, and getting to the core of the problems. Along with parent training, skill development, and at home visits for the client, the treatment will adapt to culture specific norms identifying steps that can help improve the inner and outer problems of the confusion of the clients body issues, the involvement of the father in encouraging sex role development, and the involvement throughout the clients life. The goals of the treatment in using both techniques is setting clear boundaries as a gatekeeping, establishing lines of authority, helping in negotiating the family life cycle transitions, and family mapping. When treatment is complete, an evaluation of where the family is on the family life cycle is, and the therapists will remove him/herself from the family structure leaving the family intact.


When the father is not around to encourage positive and gender role differentiation children’s’ action are perceived as acting out or engaging in behavior that is in reflection of dealing with the absent father.  Previous research is shown to display that single parents’ households speared by women can slow the progress of sex-role development, and can significantly affect the sex-role development on several levels including sex role preference, where children preference is set towards symbols role that is socially already defined.  Sex role orientation in evaluating their gender identity of female or male, and the sex role adoption of how a person’s gender identity seems to others. Children, especially young boys when reaching puberty need help in figuring out the different feelings, urgings, and perceived un-normal changes happening to their body. Once a child progresses towards adolescence their gender plays a major role and seek to gain more knowledge about their gender. The manner in which children obtain this knowledge greatly impacts how their gender is tied into their behaviors and choices.  The behaviors of the parents in the home influence the children’ sex role development. (Hupp et al, 2010)

Within the family cycle families become stuck between phases of stages three and four. The phase of divorce or abandonment of the fathers can cause behavioral and personality changes in children that can cause a disruption in their family structure. A father’s absence creates a hole in the family dynamic and more families are stuck in the stage of dealing with growing children who are acting out do the change in the family foundation. Families play a pivotal role within society, and in the lives of their offspring. There are several factors that go into child development, in identifying sex roles, cognitive learning, social learning, and other values. Parental absence can cause a major effect on children’s sex role development, specifically when the child is young and developing where gender differences are more apparent and seek knowledge. When fathers are not around the mother takes on two roles and is in charge of forming the sex roles identities in both boys and girls. Maternal encouragement can have great impacts whether a parent is absent or not. Race plays a major role as so does the socio-economic factor, and education. The loss of a parent effects many facets of the family dynamic, financially, socially, education-wise, and in development. Although studies suggest the loss is more significant at a younger age when children are figuring out gender identity, gender constancy, and gender stability. The loss can also be felt all the way into adulthood.

Throughout this research paper the family life cycle is crucial in outlining the stage of where families play in adolescence and families with young children. The family life cycle is parallel to the contextual cycle in society. Within each stage are phases that can cause stressors on the family members. When transitioning to each stage in the cycle relationships and families must adapt to the inevitable change that can be made complicated by external or internal problems. For the purpose of this paper the steps of Families with young children and families with adolescences are some of most cases that therapist see families have problems with. The change of a new addition or change to family strains marital, financial, and familial relationships. The strains can add stress on the marriage and the family as the children grow. In some cases the marriage dissolves and leads to a separation or divorce of one parent.

The one parent albeit mother or father can greatly affect children during these stages. Fathers provide a stability financially and cognitively to children. Fathers provide encouragement in both boys and girls. Fathers provide self-esteem and self-worth to their daughters, and in boys provides guidance and gender stability in developing specific sex-role developments in helping to identify with relationships with others, higher achievements in education, and lessons that will stay with the children through adulthood. Therapy provides families the tools to get families unstuck in their family life cycle and progressing in positive direction towards stability and healthy relationships.



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