Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Children as young as four express liberal views about gender

Children as young as four already show some awareness that gender roles are flexible and that individual preferences are an acceptable reason for not conforming to gender norms. That's according to a study with 72 four- to eight-year-olds in the United States, completed by Clare Conry-Murray at Pennsylvania State University and Elliot Turiel at University California, Berkeley. Their findings contrast with a bias in the existing literature towards showing how young children have fixed ideas about gender - for example, studies have shown that four- to five-year-olds believe a child raised entirely by opposite-sex parents would nonetheless display all the traits and preferences of their own biological sex.

For the new research, Conry-Murray and Turiel asked the children a number a questions about parents' and children's choices in relation to toys, classes and clothing. Children of all ages showed an awareness of gender norms. For instance, asked whether girls or boys usually babysit more, 90 per cent of the children said that girls tended to do this more often. Similarly, without any other contextual information, most of the children tended to say that parents should make gender-normed choices - for example, that they should give a toy truck to their son rather than their daughter.

The children's more flexible attitudes first became apparent with a question that asked whether it was okay for gender norms to be reversed in another country - for example, Would it be OK in another country for boys to babysit more? Overall, most children (79 per cent) said this is okay, although there was a tendency for older children to be more accepting of this idea (60-65 per cent of 4-year-olds said it was OK, but this was not high enough to show they were doing anything other than just answering the question randomly).

Another question raised the issue of individual preferences - for instance, the children were asked who should go to the babysitting class - the son or daughter - if, say, the son loves babysitting? This time the children of all ages were more likely to say that the son should do the babysitting, although those aged 6 years and upwards were more likely to give this kind of answer than the 4- and 5-year-olds.

Two final types of question related to rules in the USA and in another country. For instance, "Joey's parents decide to send him to babysitting class but they learn the school forbids boys from doing the class - is that rule OK or not OK?",  "What about the same rule in another country?" Most of the children (76 per cent) said this rule was not OK, even in another country. However, once again there was an age effect, with older children being more likely to condemn the rule, and the youngest children providing a mix of answers suggesting they could have been guessing.

"Gender norms are not uniformly judged as inflexible even at the youngest ages represented in this study," the researchers said. Furthermore, from the older children's open-ended explanations for their answers (the younger children tended not to articulate reasons), it was also clear that most of them did not see adherence to gender norms as morally obligatory. "Insofar as the older children invoked moral obligations it was to reject the regulation of gender-related activities," the researchers said.


Conry-Murray, C., and Turiel, E. (2012). Jimmy’s Baby Doll and Jenny’s Truck: Young Children’s Reasoning About Gender Norms. Child Development, 83 (1), 146-158 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01696.x

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.


Rich said...

Not sure how you are defining liberal or gender roles. My 4 year old would answer that girls babysit more because his babysitter is a girl. If it's not the babysitter it's his grandmothers or aunts.

Answering that it's ok for a male to do it too is liberal? I would think the question would be would you like to babysit when you get older. And again, it's 4 year olds so grain of salt. Mine would tell you he wants to be Godzilla when he grows up. Or a Front End Loader possibly.

As for the "gender normed choices" (the verbiage even sounds odd), he fits the norm and all his male friends seem to be just the same. Dinosaurs, trucks, super heros. Cant speak for little girls yet, maybe in another couple of months.

Ben said...

If nothing else, this study at least suggests that gender roles are not inherent i.e. that children don't inherently believe that boys shouldn't be babysitters, but who claimed otherwise? It seems very unlikely that anyone ever made such a claim as 'children inherently believe some jobs must not be performed by certain genders, with no outside guidance forming their opinion'.

It certainly stands to reason that as society becomes less inclined to force specific roles upon specific genders then so too will its children be less inclined to do so, but this study certainly doesn't assert that children are inherently against gender roles (I'm sure the same questions in Iran would have rather different answers), so all it can really assert is that children's gender roles are not solely a product of nature.

But who in recent times claimed otherwise?

The main interesting implication of this study, as Christian has hinted at, is whether or not same-sex couples would raise children with atypical gender roles. If gender roles are indeed learned (as this study, and basic common sense, proposes), then would not the same diverse spread of gender roles have a positive impact upon a child's development as the diverse spread of other socially learned behaviours have upon a child's development?

I'm not really sure what to draw from that, without further study into the effects of lack of exposure to diverse gender roles, but I guess it's something to think about.

Anonymous said...

This article is really interesting! You can really see "Nature vs Nurture" at play here. Sure, the children are giving answers based off of experience or from observation (or just guessing), but maybe Nature is really to blame here. If you've heard of the study with David Reirner (who was a boy raised as a girl) he still had a very good idea about gender roles, and that the things that "she" liked were the same as what "her" twin brother liked.
Go Nature!

Anonymous said...

This study does show some things to think about. However, I would be interested to know how many girls and how many boys participated in this study, and what percentages of the two genders were open to gender roles. Girls are often more flexible about gender roles, and so it would be interesting to see if this study proves that. Also, the four year olds have practically just noticed the differences between genders, and so it makes sense that they would be more likely to be gender biased. Four is such a young age though; it makes sense that a lot of them were just saying whatever popped in their head even if they didn't understand the question.

Anonymous said...

I think that this is a very interesting blog post. This post is basically stating that the majority of children ages 4-5 believe in nurture versus nature which I would think children would think the opposite. It seems a little advanced for a 5 year old boy or girl to understand that moms and dads should gives girls firetrucks and girls dolls to play with because in the "gender world" that is what is considered politically correct. I also think that when children are really young is when they are most likely to only want to play with toys that relate to their gender simply because that is what they want.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed reading the article! Very neat material!

It is very interesting that children of such young age can already differentiate the "acceptable" gender norms. Children are taught the social learning theory from when they were born. They are introduced to toys or clothing that are more oriented to their biological sex. The social learning theory allows gender roles to be learned through reinforcement and modeling, which dictates a lot of the children's opinions on gender norms.
Though the post states that children are expressing more "liberal" thoughts on gender norms, it seems to be that the children are displaying gender schemas. They have an idea on what things or activities are masculine and feminine. The questions being asked in the study were not definite, they answered with "ok" in relation to the boy attending babysitting class.
The children answering with an "ok" is more accepting rather than liberal.
I do agree that children are more flexible on gender roles than adults.

Anonymous said...

I think that this is a very interesting blog post. The blog post shows examples of the social learning theory. The theory of gender-role development contends that gender roles are learned through reinforcement, punishment, and modeling (Bussey & Bandura,2004). Children gender norms at a young age because they are exposed to many sources of information about gender roles, including television, video games, books, film, and observation of there parents of the same sex. Children copy actions of the roll models around them. Also this blog post shows examples of Gender Schema Theory, developed by Sandra Bem. Gender schema theory contends that children actively develop mental categories for masculinity and femininity (Martin & Halverson, 1981: Martin & Ruble, 2004). Gender schema theory is an example of when the little boy plays with trucks and girls play with dolls. I think the study is very intersting how young children pick up on details of gender.

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.