Forget the non-sexist books and toys this Christmas, says Wendy Earle; gender stereotypes play an important part in early child development
Why try to make boys more like girls?
Working in an educational publishing company I am constantly under pressure to ensure that our publi-cations do not reflect or reinforce sexist stereotypes. One result of this is a maths poster for primary schools that shows a building site where almost every builder, carpenter, architect and engineer is a woman. A survey of modern children's fiction and non-fiction books would reveal a similarly distorted represen-tation of the world. Yet all the evidence of child development research suggests that we are wasting our time trying to blur gender differences as they are perceived by young children.
Anybody who has watched young children grow up must have noticed that, as they emerge out of babyhood, they begin to acquire more defined personalities which clearly reflect their gender, despite any attempts by their parents to offer non-gendered toys. At around the age of three my niece left her androgynous infancy and began to mark herself out very much as a little girl. She insisted on wearing pink clothes and was desperate for a fairy outfit for her fourth birthday. My nephew was equally eager to prove his male credentials from about the same age as he charged around being a little tough guy.
In the past the way children took on male and female characteristics and roles according to their biological sex was seen as natural and desirable, but in the last few years there has been a growing body of opinion which suggests that the influence of sex stereotypes on children may be profoundly harmful, particularly for boys. Angela Phillips, in her book The Trouble with Boys (1993), concludes: 'The trouble with boys is that they must become men, and if the only picture of men available is that of a brute, then to become male they must be brutish.' Some writers would have us believe that the influence of masculine stereotypes on growing boys means that they never learn how to express themselves emotionally. This apparently makes them aggressive, susceptible to criminal tendencies and inadequate in relationships with other people (particularly women).
These fears reflect more about the preoccupations of adults than about the real processes of child development. In fact gender stereotypes do appear to play an important role in children's development, but it is far from being a negative one. Research in child development indicates that children use gender differences to help them learn about the world and establish themselves within it.
There is no doubt that we live in a sex-typed world. From the moment of birth children are identified as male or female and the expectations parents and others have for them are inevitably conditioned by this fact. As children grow up in society they are likely to see for themselves that men and women play different roles: mum is likely to look after them more than dad, the majority of their teachers are female and their dads still tend to be the main family breadwinners. They are also likely to notice that girls are usually prettier than boys, but that boys tend to be stronger and run faster - and that all the best footballers are male.
Men and women usually look and sound different; they move differently, dress in different ways and have different mannerisms. Children pick up on these distinctions at a very early age. Some research has shown that babies as young as four or five months can match a male voice to a man's face and a female voice to a woman's face. Between 24 and 36 months they are able to categorise and label men and women correctly, and a bit later they know the difference between boys and girls. By the age of 4 or 5 they know for sure whether they are a girl or a boy.
Labelling and self-labelling appear to be milestones in a child's cognitive development. Children are highly motivated to find out about their surroundings and work out how everything fits together in relation to themselves. By perceiving similarities and differences, becoming familiar with groupings, patterns and routines, and naming things, they are able, in their minds, to impose order on the world around them. They begin to recognise stereotypes from as young as 18 months or two years.
A friend of mine tells the story of a two year old in her care who refused to recognise that the woman driving the bus they were on was the driver. In his young mind he had connected driving a bus with being a man and this was the way the world was ordered as far as he was concerned. Another friend, the only male teacher in an infant school, once confessed that he was persistently referred to as 'Miss' despite strenuous efforts to direct the children to a more appropriate form of address.
Slugs and snails
When they know what sex they are, children identify themselves as a member of one main social group as distinct from the other. Their gender identity becomes very important to them and they get upset if somebody mistakes them for the other sex. They rate highly everything that they identify as relating to themselves. Once a boy knows that he is a boy he tends to identify with and value 'boy' things, such as football, cars and construction toys. He is more interested in activities and stories about boys and men because he wants to find out what it means to be male. Similarly a girl tends to identify with 'girl' things such as dolls, fairies, princesses and, just now, the Spice Girls. While playing with her pushchairs, baby dolls and Barbie she explores what it means to be female.
Knowledge of their gender also influences children's behaviour. It provides them with a kind of organising principle that helps to give shape to the complex pattern of interactions and events in their social environment. It also helps them to make decisions and choices about their own actions and what behaviour is appropriate to the kind of person they are. In their play children act out gender stereotyped roles, such as 'mummies and daddies', the Spice Girls or Power Rangers, and they practise the mannerisms and styles of movement associated with their gender.
Some people put this identification with stereotypes down to reinforcement by parents, and it is true that the sex of a baby is an important part of how parents relate to it. However, the research into how this affects their treatment of their babies is far from conclusive. Furthermore, studies have shown that even when parents make strenuous efforts to counteract gender stereotypes at home, it only affects the process of gender identification by delaying it slightly (if at all).
The influences on young children are broad and varied. The view that parents and teachers can counteract the messages children are exposed to about the social characteristics of their sex by feeding them a diet of non-sexist books and videos is misguided. It is based on an underestimation of the range of stimuli children are subject to and, more importantly, the extent to which children actively integrate these stimuli into their thinking. Family members, friends, carers, and people in public places, on television and in books and videos, all serve to demonstrate to children, one way or another, that men and women appear different and play different roles in society. There is no way that all the subtle variations in sex-differentiated behaviour can be taught or untaught.
Children's tendency to interpret stories and events according to the way they perceive gender patterns and moral order has been well-demonstrated in a fascinating study of pre-school children's attitudes to their gender by the Australian feminist, Bronwyn Davies (Frogs and Snails and Feminist Tales, 1989). She read a selection of non-sexist and feminist children's stories to several pre-schoolers and then discussed the stories with each of them. In one story, 'The princess and the dragon', the princess swapped roles with the dragon because she wanted to be naughty and the dragon wanted to be good. Though the author's intention was to show children that, like the princess, they did not have to fit into designated roles, children preferred the good dragon to the naughty princess.
In another story - 'The paperbag princess' - the princess rescued the prince from the dragon but got messy while she was doing it and ended up wearing only a paper bag. As a result she was rejected by the prince who did not want to be rescued by such a messy girl. Davies found that the children sympathised with the prince, and did not like the disruption of the traditional happy ending brought about by the princess' refusal to fit into role.
The way children think is very different from the way adults think. The complex, abstract concepts that characterise adult thinking are way beyond children's capacities. In their drive to impose order on the world children tend to pick up on the most obvious and consistent differences between the sexes and to simplify information in order to understand and apply it. They perceive and recognise dominant patterns, make rules and ignore the exceptions to these rules.
Pre-school children are apt to dis-regard aspects of events or stories which do not conform to their expectations, or (at a slightly later stage of development) to transform unpredicted elements so that they conform to their expectations. Even if a child's father does the cooking at home, he is unlikely to identify cooking with maleness. In one recent experiment some children were shown a video featuring only women doctors, but when they retold the story afterwards the doctors were male.
The way children understand what it means to be male or female does not correspond to an adult understanding of these concepts. The stereotypes which 4-7 year olds tend to pick up on are quite crude, larger than life caricatures of maleness and femaleness - princesses and soldiers, Spice Girls and Power Rangers. A four-year-old boy may really think that being male means being like a Power Ranger - but no sane man would seriously entertain this idea for a moment.
A child's concept of what it means to be male and female changes as the child develops and gains more exper-ience of the social world. Primary school age children tend to have very rigid ideas about gender roles, and tend to see them as natural and immutable. As they grow up they become increasingly able to integrate more complex information into their thinking and the influence of sex stereotypes declines.
I have childhood memories of my brothers' passion for guns. They used to charge around playing fierce, noisy and aggressive games shooting each other dead or wrestling each other to the ground. It is hard to believe those little monsters have grown into the thoughtful gentle men they are today. The misconception that a child's behaviour somehow presages an adult personality, implicit in attempts to challenge gender stereotypes in children, blurs the dis-tinction between adults and children.
Children are susceptible to a whole range of influences which they struggle to make sense of. To begin with gender stereotypes play a relatively important role in their thinking, but they are also exposed to numerous other influences and experiences which make boys and girls, in general terms, more similar than different. In developing the ability to think about the world, to assimilate and analyse their experiences of it in all their complexities, children are gradually transformed into adults with the capacity to make conscious choices about their actions and behaviour. The misplaced desire to try to make sure children are conditioned now to make the 'right' choices in the future reflects a view of adults who have hardly developed beyond the level of eight year olds.
Reproduced from LM issue 106, December 1997/January 1998