It seems easy for a child to learn what it means to be a boy or a girl. However, it is a complex process. There are at least three different steps involved.
First, the child must develop a gender identity. Although very young children can correctly identify themselves as boys or girls, they do not see their condition as permanent. They believe that changing their hair or the way they dress will change their sex. However, by five years of age, children develop a permanent gender identity.
The second step is learning the expected behavior appropriate for his or her gender – the gender role. Boys must learn what boys and men do, what they like, and even how they think and feel. Likewise, girls must learn the same about girls and women.
Elementary school children are deeply involved in learning gender roles. In their search for the "rules" of behavior, they tend to develop very rigid stereotypes of men and women. Stereotypes are overly narrow ideas that are applied to all members of a group without allowing any variation.
Even as adults, most of us have gender role stereotypes. In our society, we tend to stereotype men as being competent, skilled, assertive, aggressive and able to get things done. Women are stereotyped as warm and expressive, tactful, quiet, gentle, aware of other's feelings and lacking in competence, independence and logic.
Grade school children absorb these stereotypes. In a study of fourth and fifth graders, women were seen by these children as weak, emotional, softhearted, sentimental, sophisticated and affectionate. The same children saw men as strong, robust, aggressive/assertive, cruel, coarse, ambitious and dominant.
To explore the development of these stereotypes in a 1977 study, psychologist William Damon told children (4-9 years old) a story of George, a boy who liked to play with dolls. George's parents bought him other toys, telling him that only little girls played with dolls, not boys. The children were asked for their comments on this story.
Four-year-olds said it was all right for George to play with dolls if he wanted to – there was no rule against it. In contrast, six-year-olds thought it was wrong for George to play with dolls. They had gone beyond what boys and girls actually do to develop rules about what they ought to do. By about nine years, children have a clear idea of what each sex does, and they still think it is better to follow the gender role. However, they realize that there is no rule against George playing with dolls.
Early gender role stereotyping is a natural process. First and second graders are searching for the rules – ways of organizing their world. At this age, the same rigidity is seen in their ideas of right and wrong – or the way they follow the rules of any game.
Figuring out that she is a girl, the six-year-old wants clear guidelines on how to be a girl. These guidelines are seen in fairly rigid terms. The guidelines loosen up slightly until puberty, when they tighten up again. In later adolescence and adulthood, they loosen up – only to tighten up again while adults are raising their own children.
Stereotypes for men seem to develop sooner and be more rigidly held. The woman's role is more flexible in our culture, so children have seen women doing different things – being a mother and/or businesswoman. On the other hand, the role of men is more highly valued. As a whole – regardless of age or sex, people think it is "good" to be independent, strong, logical and assertive. In contrast, many feminine qualities are evaluated as less desirable. Desirable masculine qualities are often defined in terms of being "non-feminine."
The final step is developing appropriate gender role behavior – matching their behavior to their gender role. This starts as early as two or three years and is virtually complete by elementary school age. As you know, there is almost total sex segregation in school play. Depending on how toys are labeled, they may be seen as appropriate for their own sex or not. For example, at this age, only rarely will boys ride a "girls' bike." Even so, the match is far from perfect. For both children and adults, our ideas about behavior of men and women are much more strictly separated than our actual behavior.
What should you do, if your child engages in inappropriate gender role behavior? Of course, this depends on the age of the child and the type of behavior. Often the behavior ends merely because peers do not engage in that behavior. If you desire a change in behavior, it is better to suggest more appropriate activities and then reward these activities. There is no need to label either the children or the inappropriate activities as "stupid" or "sissy." This type of labeling is likely to make the child think that something is "wrong with them" because they engaged in that behavior.
However, if you can accept it, inappropriate gender role behavior does not need to be stopped. As an example, Rosey Grier – 6'5", 300-pound former offensive tackle for the Giants and the Rams – is noted for his needlepoint. Do you want to tell him to quit?
* Adapted from Houston, Bee and Rimm's Essentials of Psychology, Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich Publishers, 1985, pages 300-301.
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