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Children’s Gender Beliefs: A Review of Past Research Exploring A Variety of Variables

      At what age does a child begin to recognize that there are social expectations regarding gender differences? And where exactly does stereotypical gender beliefs in children originate from? These are very relevant and valuable topics to be exploring, as each individual in society deals with limitations and/or expectations based on their gender on a daily basis, whether it is in an obvious or in a subtle way. And of course, with every new child born, a new member of society is born. Thus, if the majority of society wishes to become more egalitarian in regards to the sexes, then one must embark on gaining an understanding of how our gender attitudes begin. To obtain a better grasp on the different variables and opinions in respect to children’s gender beliefs, this paper provides a sample of various research that have focused specifically on children, their gender beliefs, and how and when they may occur.

      Eichsted, Serbin, Poulin-Dubois, and Sen (2002) focused on 18 and 24-month-old infants to attempt to pinpoint the age that gender knowledge had been obtained. The experimenters had each participant look at computer screens on which they were presented with a picture of a masculine or feminine item. Then, a gender-neutral voice would say, “This is the one I like. Can you look at me?” One male and one female adult face would then appear on the computer screens and which face the infant looked at was recorded. Results showed that within the second year of life, infants could correctly match up both conventional and male-metaphorical gender knowledge with the corresponding gender. This study is strong, as it was very controlled to ensure the validity of results. It is also an interesting study because it not only looked at when the infants acquired conventional gender knowledge, which one would get from simply observing the sexes, but also metaphorical gender knowledge, which requires one to pair up an item that is not directly related to a sex based on its attributes. This particular study gives insight as to when an infant first begins to develop his or her ideas concerning gender, but this paper will now explore what factors influence how and where a child is exposed to judgments about gender differences.

      Past research has looked into variables concerning the home and family and effects they have on children’s gender beliefs. Lindsey and Mize (2001) looked at the play-behavior between parents and their children, the children with same-sex peers, and the two in relation to one another. The participants were 33 pairs of mothers and fathers, 15 female children, and 18 male children between the ages of 43 and 80 months. 29 of the families were European-American, two were African-American, and two were of other origin. Two different parent-child play sessions were videotaped. First was a pretend-play session and second was a physical-play session. Results showed that daughter-parent pairs, particularly daughter-mother pairs engaged in more pretend-play than the son-parent pairs. In the physical-play session, son-father pairs did more physical-play than the daughter-father pairs. In the peer sessions, girls engaged in more pretend-play than boys while boys engaged in more physical-play than girls. Also, those children whose parents acted more in either the pretend-play or physical-play, engaged in more of the corresponding type of play with their peers. The experimenters believed these findings suggest that parents can influence their children’s gender-type play with peers. A problem with this experiment, however, is the fact that only middle and upper-class families participated and there was little variability in ethnicity.

      Another area of consideration regarding home-life is how parents may treat each child differently according to their sex. Gosshen-Gottstein (1981) looked at how mothers socialized each gender of their multiple-births children. The participants were seven families of multiple-births children (13 boys and 9 girls) who the researchers observed from when the children were five months up to three-and-a-half-years old at varying time intervals. The experimenters found that the mothers positively reinforced their sons’ need for closeness to them significantly more often than with their daughters, although there was no difference between the sexes in how much closeness they desired. Also, the mothers asked their daughters for help significantly more often than their sons. Although they may have not been aware they were doing so, the mothers in this study did treat their children differently depending on the gender. This may be creating or reinforcing the children’s gender mind-set. Unfortunately, this study does not include a large number of families and the fact that the participants were aware they were being watched may have affected the manner in which they behaved.

      Also, in relation to the home environment, a past study looked at whether or not a father-absent versus a father-present home made a difference in the extent of how gender-typed the children were (Stevens, Golombock, & Beveridge, 2002). Using a sample of 238 single-mother families and 6,420 mother-father families, the researchers assessed each child at 42 months-old using the Pre-School Activities Inventory to determine how masculine or feminine each child was. The results showed that there were no significant differences between children living in father-present and father-absent homes. The only problem with this experiment is that the mothers filled out the assessments, which could have caused some unwarranted variability. However, with the results showing no significant differences between the two types of families, this may suggest that parents are not the only source of gender development and a child may develop his or her ideas about gender from other sources.

      Another environment that children are exposed to is the academic arena. Previous research has concentrated on the academic environment to see its effects on children’s gender beliefs. In 1995, Bigler conducted an in-classroom experiment to see if teachers making use of gender categorization of students would increase student’s gender stereotyping. First, the 66 elementary school children participants were pretested for gender stereotyping and their classification skill level. Then, each participant was assigned to one of three groups, which included a classroom where the teacher used groupings of males and females, a classroom where the teacher used groups named “red” and “green”, and a classroom with no groupings. After four weeks, a posttest was administered measuring the levels of each participants’ gender stereotyping. Results showed that gender categorization in the classroom led to an increase in students’ gender stereotyping, especially for the individuals who had initially tested lower in classification skill. The classroom using color grouping showed no increase. This is a very simple, straightforward study that illustrates the extent to which a classroom experience can influence a child’s gender beliefs.

      Heyman and Legare (2004) went further to see how children felt about each gender in the academic and social sphere. They used a three-step process to assess 120 elementary school students on their gender beliefs. First, they asked each child questions, to which the child would make a response by picking up one photograph of a set of five girl and five boy photographs. Second, the participants were asked questions much like the ones from the first set of questions and their verbal answers were coded. Finally, each participant was asked questions comparing the two sexes and those answers were also coded. The results suggested that children who tested higher for making gender distinctions, also were apt to correlate girls with prosocial tendencies and success in spelling and boys with aggression. Children who related positive characteristics with girls tended to also relate negative characteristics with boys. When asked to compare girls and boys, all the children were more likely to show same-sex favoritism. This is a well-done study because it included a wide variety of elementary-school ages, ethnicities, and incomes, thus creating a high level of real-world validity.

      There are also a number of different factors that may contribute to shaping a child’s gender beliefs. First, past studies have explored children’s entertainment. Aubrey and Harrison (2004) looked to children’s favorite television programs to see if they were related to their gender beliefs. First, the researchers did a content analysis on children’s television programs. They found that male characters outnumber female characters. Also, they found that males will answer more questions, order others, insult others, express anger, show leadership, and achieve goals more so than female characters. 68 boys and 77 girls in first or second grade were than interviewed to find their television preferences and their gender role values were measured. The results showed that boys’ valuing of hard work and humor could be positively predicted by their preference for stereotypical television content. Also, girls’ preference for television content that was male stereotypical or male counter-stereotypical, negatively predicted interpersonal attraction to female characters. On the other hand, girls’ preference for female counter-stereotypical and neutral content positively predicted their interpersonal attraction to female characters. Results also showed that boys’ preference for counter-stereotypical female characters and content positively predicted their interpersonal attraction to male characters. These findings suggest that perhaps children are attracted to characters who possess specific characteristics, regardless of the character’s gender. A limitation of this study, however, is the fact that children could have actually found a program or character more appealing based on other variables, such as storyline, which may not have had anything to do with gender.

      Durkin and Nugent (1998) also used television as a way to explore preschooler’s beliefs regarding gender. They used 48 preschoolers, of equal number of both sexes, to participate in the experiment. Each participant was presented with three cards that represented a man, a woman, and both. After ensuring that each participant was aware of what each card represented, a short video was showed. A series of questions were asked about the video and the participant would respond with either pointing to a card or verbally. The results showed that the children did possess strong stereotypes regarding gender, especially when it came to masculine activities. Also, as the age of the children increased, the likelihood of making gender stereotyped decisions increased. When asked about their own abilities, older girls were more likely to eliminate masculine activities as something they would do in their lives. Thus, this study argues that children’s gender beliefs are being considered when watching television, while the study by Aubrey and Harrison (2004) suggests that perhaps some children are attracted to certain qualities of characters, regardless of gender, that they see on television.

      Another aspect worth considering, according to Albert and Porter (1988), is race. They wanted to investigate a handful of different variables in relation to children’s gender-role attitudes. Their participants consisted of 1,264 Black and White children between four and six years old, who were from varying social backgrounds. A group of interviewers, which were controlled for race and sex, took each child individually to a private area and assessed their gender-role attitudes using doll-play and a story-telling session. The results showed that Black children showed lower levels of gender stereotyping for both males and females than White children. The experimenters felt that what causes this difference should be further investigated, as it may tell us more about how children’s gender beliefs develop. This is a well-done study, as it used a large sample of participants and had good internal validity.

      Past research suggests that children even choose to favor certain children over others based on their gender beliefs. Abers (1998) investigated children’s opinions of peers based on clothing. Participants included 81 children ranging from 5 to 10 years old. Each child was individually presented pictures of males and females wearing either masculine, feminine, or gender-neutral clothing. The child was then asked to rate the pictures in order from whom they would most to least like to play with. The results illustrate that children prefer to play with same-sexed peers in neutral or stereotypical clothing corresponding to their sex. This was yet another very simple, yet effective study that demonstrates how gender-attitudes in children can effect their everyday decisions.

      Some researchers have argued that past studies conducted on children’s gender beliefs are flawed and other considerations should be made for future research. Martin (1993) contends that there are two main areas that need to be taken into account for new research. First, Martin suggests that researchers need to look at younger and older children individually, as she believes gender cognitions change with age. She argues that older children, around eight years old, can make logical conclusions regarding gender, while younger children cannot. Thus, she feels it is premature to assume that one can apply or compare research from one age group of children to another. Second, she believes that too much research has been focused on activities and interests of children. Instead, Martin reasons that there should be more detailed research that concentrates on the planning and steps a child goes through when committing a stereotypical gender act, rather than just the act itself. These are very relevant arguments, as there is no evidence that concludes with certainty that older and younger children should be considered cognitively and developmentally congruent. Also, Martin makes a strong point when she suggests that future research should look more in depth into the process a child goes through when coming to a decision concerning their gender-beliefs. This would expand research on the topic from not only knowing what children’s gender beliefs are, but also how they arrive at them.

      When looking at the above-mentioned research as a whole, one can determine that children’s gender beliefs originate from a number of different sources. These areas may include the child’s home-life, academic setting, or even television. Most interesting, and perhaps disturbing, is the extent to which a child’s gender beliefs can govern their behavior and decisions. It can even cause them to decide they do not wish to interact with a peer simply because the other child is counter-stereotypical in appearance (Abers, 1998). From this research, one can conclude that additional research studies should be conducted, especially in regards to race. The fact that Black children are less apt to gender-type than White children suggests that maybe a positive social difference exists that may lead to a better understanding of techniques to apply across all backgrounds (Albert & Porter, 1988). Finally, the subject of children’s gender beliefs should be further explored with the goal of collecting information from as many variables in life as possible, so that perhaps someday our society can create an atmosphere in which children will grow up more gender-neutral than each generation before them.



Albers, Susan M. (1998). The effect of gender-typed clothing on children's social judgments. Child Study Journal, 28, 137-159.

Albert, Alexa A. & Porter, Judith R. (1998). Children's gender-role stereotypes: A sociological investigation of psychological models. Sociological Forum, 3, 184-210.

Aubrey, Jennifer Stevens & Harrison, Kristen. (2004). The gender-role content of children’s favorite television programs and its links to their gender-related perceptions. Media Psychology, 6, 111-146.

Bigler, Rebecca S. (1995). The role of classification skill in moderating environmental influences on children's gender stereotyping: A study of the functional use of gender in the classroom. Child Development, 66, 1072-1087.

Durkin, Kevin & Nugent, Bradley. (1998). Kindergarten children’s gender-role expectations for television actors. Sex Roles, 38, 387-402.

Eichstedt, Julie A., Serbin, Lisa A., Poulin-Dubois, Diane, & Sen, Maya J. (2002). Of bears and men: Infants’ knowledge of conventional and metaphorical gender stereotypes. Infant Behavior and Development, 25, 296-310.

Stevens, Madeleine, Golombok, Susan, & Beveridge, Michael. (2002). Does father absence influence children's gender development? Findings from a general population study of preschool children. Parenting: Science and Practice, 2, 47-60.

Goshen-Gottstein, Esther R. (1981). Differential maternal socialization of opposite-sexed twins, triplets, and quadruplets. Child Development, 52, 1255-1264.

Heyman, Gail D. & Legare, Christine H. (2004). Children’s beliefs about gender differences in the academic and social domains. Sex Roles, 50, 227-239.

Lindsey, Eric W. & Mize, Jacquelyn. (2001). Contextual differences in parent-child play: Implications for children's gender role development. Sex Roles, 44, 155-176.

Martin, Carol L. (1993). New directions for investigating children's gender knowledge. Developmental Review, 13, 184-204.