Gender is one of the most central attributes people have and an object of endless interest across all societies. Thus it should not be surprising that children are also aware of gender-related characteristics and quickly come to display those qualities themselves well before their own sexual maturity. What is surprising is just how early gender awareness emerges developmentally and just how pervasive its effects are. The present paper summarizes what we know about how gender differences develop over the childhood years, and what theoretical ideas have been proposed as to the basis for gender role development.
Normative Gender Role Development
Diane Ruble and Carol Martin have organized research on gender role development around four major gender-typing components: (1) concepts or beliefs, (2) gender identity or self-perception, (3) verbalized gendered preferences, and (4) display of gender-typed behaviors. They review evidence showing that even in infancy, children are already able to distinguish between the two sexes in rudimentary ways. For example, 7-month-olds respond differently to male and female voices, and by 12 months of age, many infants can distinguish between male and female faces. Similarly, ideas about gender stereotypes regarding toy, activity, and clothing preferences are already evident from about age 2 or 3, and rapidly progress further during the subsequent toddler and preschool years. Knowledge of stereotypes continues to expand in the middle childhood years, but children’s advancing cognitive development also leads them to more flexible thinking about gender roles as they further mature during this age period. Children’s understanding of gender identity or self-perception likewise progresses systematically during the toddler and preschool years, moving from a simple ability to label the self as a boy or a girl, to understanding that gender is stable over time (e.g., understanding that a boy can become a “daddy” but not a “mommy”), and finally to a full understanding of the permanence of gender assignment even across clothing and hairstyle changes (gender constancy, achieved at about age 5 to 7). Developmental trends for verbalized gendered preferences parallel those for stereotype knowledge, with some preferences beginning to be expressed as early as age 2 to 3, and well established by age 5. Finally, behaviorally, gendered toy play has been found to emerge even earlier, by age 1½ to 2. And by age 3, both sexes show a clear preference for playing with same-sex partners. Research further indicates that gendered differences in interests and activities continue through the childhood years and may even intensify in adolescence.
What might account for such early and pervasive gender role development? A number of theories have been advanced to address this question.
Theories Of Gender Role Development
Theories of gender role development fall into two major categories, namely, biological and social-cognitive. Biologically oriented theories, such as that of John Money and Anke Ehrhardt, have focused on the many genetic, anatomical, and hormonal differences between the sexes as providing the major basis for the gender role distinctions shown by males and females. For example, biologically based sex-linked characteristics evident from early infancy may predispose boys and girls to favor those activities typically associated with their gender (more muscular, active boys may therefore be predisposed toward risk taking, aggression, and rough-and-tumble play; more verbal girls may therefore be predisposed toward more verbally oriented play). At the same time, intertwined environmental influences cannot be excluded. For example, Eleanor Maccoby has suggested that parents may play more roughly with their more muscular, active sons than with their quieter, more verbal daughters, with such experiences also contributing to children’s later gendered development. Money and Ehrhardt’s biosocial theory incorporates social as well as biological factors by stressing how early gendered socialization experiences combine with the impact of prenatal biological developments, particularly hormonal influences. In support of such biological perspectives, the large empirical literature on hormonal influences (e.g., with androgenized females exposed to male hormones during prenatal development) demonstrates a wide range of hormonally based effects, but also makes clear the intertwined effects of social experience. A psychobiosocial model recently proposed by Diane Halpern has further extended the notion of two-way interactive effects by stressing the impacts that early experience may have on the extent to which neural pathways develop in different parts of the brain.
Although biologically oriented theories do particularly well in spelling out the nature of biologically related influences on gender role development, to find more detailed treatments of socialization factors, it is necessary to turn to the array of theories that emphasize social-cognitive influences. Freud’s psychoanalytic theory stresses the role of the identification process with the same-sex parent that takes place in the phallic stage of psychosexual development (age 3 to 6). Freud believed that the child identified with the same-sex parent as a way of resolving the conflict associated with having an incestuous desire for the parent of the opposite sex (the Oedipus complex in boys, Electra complex in girls). Because of the more intense threat (fear of castration) experienced by boys, Freud felt that the identification process and subsequent adoption of gender-typed characteristics would be stronger for boys than for girls. Although empirical work has been consistent with Freud’s idea that gendered behaviors emerge in the early childhood years, it has not supported many other features of his theory. For example, research by Sandra Bem indicates that children of age 4 to 6 lack accurate understanding of the genitalia differences between males and females, and thus it is difficult to argue for castration anxiety as playing a major role in the conflict experienced at this age level.
A wide range of cognitively oriented theories offers another kind of useful perspective on gender role development. These theories all stress the ways in which children engage in self-socialization processes, that is, actively attempt to acquire an understanding of gender roles and their own gender identity. Lawrence Kohlberg’s cognitive-developmental theory proposed that children progress through three stages in this regard, beginning with showing an understanding of basic gender identity at about age 3, then coming to understand the stability of gender over time, and finally achieving full understanding of the invariance of gender at about age 5 to 7. He argued that a full cognitive understanding of the constancy of gender was necessary before a child would be motivated to engage in a gendered self-socialization process, only then seeking out and paying particular attention to same-sex others. Although empirical research has supported the idea that children gradually progress through these three stages of gender understanding, the assertion that full understanding is required for gender-typing does not fit well with what we know about the extensive gender knowledge and behavior of younger children. Carol Martin and Charles Halverson’s gender schema theory proposed a variation on Kohlberg’s views by suggesting that basic gender identity is sufficient to instigate the self-socialization process in young children, with children then motivated to attend to information about gender and use it to construct organized ideas (“gender schemas”) about the two sexes. Young children are believed to first acquire general ideas about what roles and activities characterize each sex (“in-group/outgroup” schemas), and then develop detailed notions about those things seen as appropriate for their own sex (“own-sex schemas”). Yet another influential cognitive perspective relates to Sandra Bem’s views on the limitations associated with being strongly gender schematic (highly masculine or highly feminine in one’s gender typing) and the advantages of androgyny (having a blend of both masculine and feminine attributes). Empirical research has supported Bem’s assertion that androgyny may often be advantageous for children as well as adults, but the issue of the extent to which gender typicality is a desirable or undesirable attribute remains a subject of debate, and recent findings by Susan Egan and David Perry in fact suggest that it may be a positive factor for children’s development.
Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory is likewise strongly cognitive in emphasis, but it also draws on a broad array of other factors, including motivational, affective, and environmental ones. Bandura posits three major types of influences that operate to promote gender role development: (1) modeling (observing gender-relevant conceptions and behaviors from a wide range of sources, including family members, peers, teachers, and the media), (2) enactive or direct experience (gender-relevant learning related to the consequences experienced for the child’s own actions), and (3) direct tuition (direct instruction, such as statements about what is appropriate for each sex). These influences affect not only the development of gender-related knowledge and skills in children but also cognitions centrally involved in behavior regulation (outcome expectancies, self-evaluative standards, and self-efficacy beliefs). Importantly, the child is viewed as playing a very active role in development. Children are not simply acted on by their social environments; they also exert effects on and produce changes in those environments. Specifically, personal, behavioral, and environmental factors are all posited to mutually influence one another in this approach (triadic reciprocity). Gender research findings have provided extensive support for the relevance of the components in Bandura’s multidimensional approach. Nevertheless, the issue of whether social cognitive theory is sufficiently comprehensive to stand alone as the theoretical framework for gender role development is a subject of debate, and it can be argued that there is much to be gained from continuing to explore alternative perspectives as well.
Integration And Future Directions
In summary, gender role development is a central domain that affects children from infancy onward across all areas of their functioning. One theme apparent in the diversity of theoretical approaches advanced to explain gendered development relates to recognition of the important part biological forces have. These forces are viewed not as acting in a deterministic way, but rather as providing biologically based predispositions that operate in intimate concert along with environmentally based influences. A second theme pertains to the frequent stress placed on the role of cognitive processes. The multiple cognitively oriented theories agree in their recognition of the important roles that cognitions play in gender role development, although they vary in the specific kinds of elements and processes given most emphasis.
Integrative approaches incorporating the strengths of the various individual theories in an overall eclectic perspective are likely to best serve advancement of our understanding in this field. Promising directions of future research may be found in every area. Modern theoretical and methodological developments in the neuroscience and evolutionary theory areas are opening up exciting new directions of biologically oriented investigation. In the cognitive theory domain, the same may be said, with new conceptualizations and measurement tools showing the promise of doing much to further advance our knowledge. For example, Liben and Bigler have made significant new contributions with their work on new gender-typing measures widely applicable across a broad age range. Additional directions of research have also been opened up by the recent work of David Perry and his associates on newly proposed summary-level measures related to gendered representations of the self (e.g., gender typicality, contentedness, and felt pressure for gender role conformity). In conjunction with the increasing use of multidimensional, longitudinal designs, these developments may be expected to add considerably to our understanding of this complex but endlessly fascinating topic.
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