Girl on a swing Copyrighted image Credit: Used with permission

Think for a moment about someone you know. How would you describe that person? You might refer to their relationship to you, their personality traits, their physical appearance, their occupation, and a multitude of other characteristics. But perhaps the most basic part of your description is whether that person is a man or a woman, a boy or a girl.

One reason why a person’s gender is so important to us is that it is linked to a large number of physical and psychological characteristics. Apart from anatomical differences between males and females, we often think of boys and men in terms of ‘masculine’ characteristics such as assertiveness, dominance, and competitiveness, while we think of girls and women in terms of ‘feminine’ characteristics such as compassion, warmth, and nurturance. Of course, these gender stereotypes don’t in fact apply to all males and all females, but for many centuries they have been a big part of our cultural beliefs about what it means to be a boy or girl.

But do children have similar ideas about gender? When and how do stereotypes about males and females emerge in childhood? Research by developmental psychologists has shown that children start to form strong stereotypes about boys/men and girls/women from a young age. As we will see, children begin to label themselves and others as male or female accurately from around 2 years of age, and soon after this begin to form clear links between these labels and different activities, toys, behaviours, and even adult occupations (e.g., girls/women play with dolls and can be nurses; boys/men play with cars and can be firefighters). In fact, the beliefs of children in these early years of childhood can be much more strongly stereotyped than the beliefs of most adults – parents often find that their children have more stereotyped attitudes about gender than they do themselves. Moreover, the children act on these stereotypes. Especially as young children begin to play more and more with peers of their own sex, we begin to see striking differences in the ways that boys and girls play and interact.

So where do these stereotyped beliefs and behaviours come from? An intuitively appealing explanation is that children are shaped by the cultural beliefs and practices of the society in which they grow up (e.g., via parenting, schooling, media influences etc.). For example, a boy might be actively encouraged by an adult or peer to play with ‘masculine’ toys and actively discouraged from playing with ‘feminine’ toys. In fact, the research evidence for these kinds of processes is rather mixed. Researchers have shown that parents often do not reward or punish boys’ and girls’ behaviour in systematically different ways. On the other hand, there are some illuminating findings which show that other people’s reactions to children’s behaviour can be very important. For example, children’s fathers and peers often react very negatively – sometimes with clear ridicule – to ‘gender-inappropriate’ behaviour (e.g., boys playing with feminine toys such as dolls).

At the same time, children may be influenced not just by other people’s reactions to their behaviour, but also by what they see around them every day. Despite the social changes over the last 50 years, it is still the case that fathers and mothers often play traditional roles (e.g., most childcare duties are still performed by women). Indeed, from the moment of birth, parents often create a different environment for their boys than for their girls – ranging from clothing and nursery decor choices to the provision of particular toys and activities. Furthermore, even if a child’s parents do not conform to gender stereotypes, other sources of influence, such as television and books, often present highly stereotyped images of men and women.

 

 

 
Girl on a swing Copyrighted image Credit: Used with permission

But the influence of the social environment alone is not sufficient to explain children’s concepts of gender. Most importantly, theories about social influences often fail to explain key developmental changes in the way children think about gender.

 

 

Around forty years ago, developmental psychologists began to identify important changes in how children think about gender between the ages of 2 and 7 years. They did this by asking children questions such as:

  • Are you a girl or a boy?
  • Is this a girl or a boy? (showing boy/girl doll)
  • When you were a little baby were you a little girl or a little boy?
  • When you grow up, will you be a mummy or a daddy?
  • Could you ever be a [opposite of previous response]?
  • If you wore [opposite of child’s sex] clothes, would you be a girl or a boy?

The researchers found that children are able to correctly label themselves and others as male or female at a young age, around 2 to 3 years of age. But at this age, children’s understanding of gender is quite limited – they often don’t understand that gender is stable over time and that it can’t be changed by a superficial transformation of appearance (such as changing clothes). A little later, children show an awareness that gender is stable over time (e.g., a boy can’t grow up to be a mummy). But it is later still, at around age 6 or 7, that children show a full understanding of gender as a permanent characteristic that can’t be changed by making superficial transformations of appearance.

Psychologists initially thought that it isn’t until the final stage – when they have the full understanding of gender as permanent – that children start to show a strong motivation to discover and adopt masculine and feminine stereotypes. Since then, however, many researchers have shown that children actively begin to seek out information about what it means to be a boy or girl as soon as they are able to label themselves and others as male or female accurately. In other words, from around 3 years of age, children are themselves motivated to find out about masculine vs. feminine toys, activities, behaviours, and occupations.

In some ways, young children’s gender stereotypes may be the result of an effort to simplify a very complex world. Young children hold such strong stereotypes about gender precisely because having highly structured notions of what boys and girls do and like helps them to make sense of the world around them. So when a researcher presents a 5-year-old with a counterstereotypical boy (e.g., who likes to play with toy prams), the 5-year-old might still predict that the boy would prefer to play with aeroplanes than with dolls. Similarly, researchers have found that young children often distort memories of counterstereotypical images so that they conform to gender stereotypes (e.g., they might see a picture of a girl sawing wood, but later remember it as a picture of a boy sawing wood). As they grow older, however, children become able to hold a more complex and sophisticated view of the world, and can therefore recognise that stereotypes don’t apply to everyone.

There remain many challenges and unresolved questions for researchers today: Why are some children so much more concerned about fitting in with gender stereotypes than others? What can we do about gender stereotypes that lead to problems such as academic underperformance and aggressive behaviour? But the last fifty years of research have made it clear that in order to answer these kinds of questions, we have to look at both environmental influences (from parents, peers, media etc.) and aspects of the child’s own thinking.

You can read more about this in the sample extract from a chapter Robin Banerjee has recently completed as part of a new textbook for the Open University course ED209 Child Development, Cognition and Gender Development.