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Early Childhood Education Journal, Vol. 29, No.

3, Spring 2002 ( 2002)

The Impact of Child Care on Gender Role Development

and Gender Stereotypes
Kay A. Chick,1,3 Rose Ann Heilman-Houser,2 and Maxwell W. Hunter1

Research has shown that gender role development is socially constructed and learned from birth.
In this study, the impact of child care and the interactions that take place there are examined, with
a focus on gender behavior and stereotypes. Observation data and analysis are presented. Themes
representing gender stereotypes and the breaking of gender barriers are examined, and the role that
caregivers can play in the fostering of gender-fair behaviors is discussed.
KEY WORDS: child care; gender development; gender stereotypes; caregivers.

Boy shes cute. Shes going to be a knockout isnt she? (One

caregiver to another.)
Tammy, your hair looks nice in those barrettes. Did Mommy
curl your hair this morning? It looks pretty. I like it like that.
(A caregiver to a 3-year-old girl.)
Peter, youre awful quiet today. (And later, Peter begins to
growl.) Im a bear today. Theres the real Peter. (Caregiver
to Peter.)

plore and understand gender roles. Adults should never

trivialize play experiences by thinking, theyre only
playing. Play is the way that children learn, and what
they play they learn. Once a child knows they are a boy
or a girl, at around age two, preferences for gendertyped play activities, objects, and playmates soon
emerge. Psychologists believe children want to be like
those who are similar to them (Pidgeon, 1994; Thorne,
1993). Children are motivated to learn and practice in
order to achieve what they consider to be gender-appropriate behavior. Unless issues such as social justice and
gender bias are raised, children come to believe simply
that life within contemporary gender boundaries is natural and correct (Alloway, 1995).
Although considerable research on gender role development has been done in school settings, childrens
first encounters with such socialization occur earlier during their childcare experiences. The current study addresses relationships between certain interactions occurring in childcare settings and the gender socialization of
children. Interactions considered include those between:
(a) caregivers and children, (b) children and their peers,
and (c) children and their childcare environment.
First, descriptions of subjects, setting, and data
gathering procedures are presented. Next, observation
records are analyzed and discussed, with particular attention to gender stereotype themes and the breaking of
gender barriers. Finally, conclusions and recommendations for caregivers are provided.

These interactions between caregivers and children
in a childcare center certainly suggest that biological
factors do not account for all gender differences. Gender
behaviors and differences are learned from birth and
have a profound impact on identity and social roles
(Pidgeon, 1994). Gender role is socially constructed in
ways that are active and ongoing (Thorne, 1993). Moreover, children do not learn gender-appropriate behaviors
just by imitating the behavior of others. They also make
choices and demonstrate their own ideas of what it
means to be a boy or a girl (Pidgeon, 1994).
Play is a very important part of learning gender. It
is through imaginative play that children begin to ex-

Penn State Altoona.

Slippery Rock University, Slippery Rock, PA.
Correspondence should be directed to Kay A. Chick, Penn State Altoona, 3000 Ivyside Park, Altoona, PA 16601; e-mail:

1082-3301/02/0300-0149/0 2002 Human Sciences Press, Inc.


Chick, Heilman-Houser, and Hunter

During a 5-week period in the winter of 2001, observations were conducted in a private childcare center
in western Pennsylvania. Thirty-two children attended
the center and were cared for by six adult, female caregivers and a female owner. The children were grouped
by age into five classes (Fig. 1): (a) infants (6 weeks to
1 year), (b) young toddlers (1 year to 2 years), (c) older
toddlers (2 years to 3 years), (d) young preschoolers (3
years to 4 years), and (e) older preschoolers (4 years to
5 years). The adult in the infant room cared for a maximum of four children, the toddler rooms had no more
than six children, and the preschool rooms had no more
than eight children. The parents of 19 children, ages 8
months to 5 years, gave permission for their children
to participate in the study. Permission was also readily
obtained from all six caregivers. All children participating in the study attended the center full time, 5 days per
week. Parents and caregivers were informed that the focus of the study was gender issues, but they were not
given information on the specific research questions to
be addressed.
Because of afternoon nap times, observations were
conducted during the morning hours. All observations
were scripted data, and the reliability of data was established by comparing the initial observations of both researchers in the same classes. Observations focused on
interactions between children and their caregivers, their
peers, and the materials and toys in the environment.
Observations were coded as either gender neutral,
gender stereotyped, or breaking barriers. Gender
neutral behaviors included interactions unrelated to
gender issues, such as when a caregiver asked children
to wash their hands and sit down at the table for snack.
A behavior was coded as gender stereotyped if it

Fig. 1 Study Sample

could be associated most typically with one sex, such as

when all preschool boys wanted to make paper airplanes
and all preschool girls wanted to make paper fans. A
behavior coded as breaking barriers, was identified as
breaking gender stereotypes, for example, when a caregiver reinforced a girl for wanting to become a doctor.
Content analysis of the observation data sought to determine gender stereotype themes as well as the breaking
of gender barriers (Miles & Huberman, 1994).
While the current study took place in a single childcare center and with a sample of children whose representativeness could not be controlled, the data indicated
the presence of gender inequity themes. A description
of each is provided and discussed, with supportive examples.
Themes Representing Gender Inequities
Inequity #1: Boys Received More Attention than Girls,
Even When There Were Fewer of Them
Observations suggested that caregivers gave more
attention to boys and, furthermore, that boys sometimes used shock value to gain adult attention. In the
younger preschool room, Wayne was the lone boy with
five girls. During snack time he sat at the end of the
table, while the girls sat on either side. During circle
time he also sat on the end of a row of chairs. Circle
time was used to discuss the letter of the week, sing
songs, and review parent names and addresses. While
singing the ABC song, Wayne said, I dont want to
hear this. He crossed the room, put his head down on
a pillow, and covered his ears. When the song was over,
he returned to his chair and announced, One time I had
a butterfly and I killed it. At snack time, Wayne blurted
out comments such as, When Darl hits me I hit him
back, or I dont wear a helmet when I ride my bike.
These comments shocked the girls and elicited immediate reaction from the caregiver. Such tough talk is
common among boys in preschool and elementary classrooms (Thorne, 1993). When the caregiver conversed
with the girls, Wayne constantly interrupted and steered
the discussion back to him.
Extra attention to boys was evident also in the infant room, where they were held and spoken to more
frequently. Infant boys were fussier and more active
than infant girls. The latter were more apt to occupy
themselves quietly. All infants were at least 8 months of
age and either scooted, crawled, walked with assistance,
or walked independently. Since there was only one rocking chair in the room, the researchers usually sat on

Impact of Child Care on Gender Roles

the floor during observations. Male infants routinely
crawled or scooted over to them, attempted to hold pens,
grab paper, and handle laptop computers. The female
infants, while observant, made no move to get close to
the researchers.
Boys in the toddler and preschool rooms also received more attention than girls, and it was associated
again with active, disruptive, and inappropriate behavior. Boys in these groups were clearly rowdier, more
assertive, and more active than their female peers. While
boys have been documented to have somewhat higher
activity levels, the range of activity levels among all boys
and girls, respectively, is typically reported to be greater
than the differences between the genders (Thorne, 1993).
In this study, however, it appeared that boys had consistently higher activity levels than girls.
In the preschool room, a girl tried to speak to a
boy, but he kept interrupting her while he was spinning
in circles. When the caregiver told him to listen to what
the girl had to say, he became angry and had to be removed from the room. On another occasion, in a mixed
group of younger and older preschool children, the boys
enjoyed the game of indoor bowling, especially the yelling and clapping that went with throwing the ball and
knocking down pins. In contrast, the girls held their ears
and complained that the boys were too loud. In the
younger preschool room, the children were told to
choose a book, sit on the floor, and read. The girls complied immediately, but the boys continued to run around
the room. When the caregiver finally got them seated
with books, the boys pointed at the book and repeatedly
shouted, baa baa black sheep.
In todays culture, it is widely accepted that boys
will be boys. This myth, believed to have a significant
impact on male rearing, usually attributes typical boy
behavior to testosterone (Pollock, 1998). Conversely,
when girls are rowdy, it is attributed to external factors.
In the preschool room, one caregiver asked a girl if she
was drinking coffee, since she had so much energy one
morning. When boys were active, there were never comments attributing causation. In addition, when girls were
active, they were often cautioned to be careful. In the
older toddler room, both boys and girls played on the
sliding board and some crawled over the side. The girls
were cautioned to stop crawling or they would hurt
their bellies. No comments were made to the boys.
Inequity #2: Boys Exerted More Power and Control
When Their Numbers Were Equal to Females
In the younger preschool room some children were
bowling. One boy called to the caregiver each time he
bowled, asking for help to set up the pins. Eventually,

he recruited a girl to arrange them for him. Boys learn
about the power of their words and behavior at an early
age. It is well documented that they learn to control conversations in elementary and secondary classrooms
(American Association of University Women, 1992).
When playing with girls, boys also use power and control strategies that support gender separation; indeed,
girls often avoid play with boys rather than be controlled
(Sims, Hutchins, & Taylor, 1998; Walkerdine, 1998).
However, while there is power in gender, there is
also power in number. In this childcare center, when
girls outnumbered boys, the former usually took control.
In the younger preschool room, five girls were playing
house and invited Wayne to join them. While one girl
became the mother and the other girls sisters, Wayne
was assigned the role of family dog! He seemed to have
no problem crawling on the floor, barking, and being
petted by the girls. He did not attempt to take control of
play with the girls in the majority. However, during
snack time and circle time, Wayne returned to monopolizing caregiver attention by acting out and telling
shocking stories. Was this, perhaps, his way of maintaining some power and control in an all-female environment?
Inequity #3: Girls Were Reinforced for Their Dress,
Hairstyles, and Helping Behaviors, While Boys
Received More Comments on Their Size and
Physical Skills
Caregivers often reinforced girls for their clothing
or hairstyles. In the young toddler room, one caregiver
commented to Tiffany, Your hair looks very pretty. I
like the barrettes. A nice touch. In the infant room, a
9-month-old boy pulled himself up to a walker holding
a 9-month-old girl and reached out to touch her. The
caregiver noticed and said, You like her. You like her,
Bud? Shes pretty, huh? Conversations between girls
and caregivers typically included topics such as clothing
color, where they got their hair cut, and whether their
hair needed fixing.
Girls were reinforced more frequently for nurturing
and helping behaviors. They were encouraged to take
care of and show affection to baby dolls and stuffed
bears. In the older toddler room, one girl was praised
for being a good little helper, as she assisted another
girl to put on her socks. In the younger preschool room,
a girl commented that she kept putting the books in order and someone kept messing them up. The caregiver
praised her for doing a good job and told the director
that this little girl was her organizer. In the older toddler room, a girl was playing in the kitchen. Two boys
sat down at the table and the girl began to serve them

coffee. One of the boys commented that he wanted a
hotdog. The caregiver called to the girl and said, He
wants a hotdog. Can you be his waitress and serve him
the hotdog?
While caregivers often commented on girls dress
and hairstyles, they just as frequently reinforced boys
for their size. In the infant room, one caregiver was
overheard saying, Alex, youre eating like such a biggy
boy. Thats a good boy. Also in the infant room, one
boy was called a little worm and was asked, Where
are you going wiggly worm? Sadker and Sadker (1994)
document that appearance is the one and only area
where girls are recognized more than boys. When teachers talk with boys about appearance, interactions are
usually brief and move quickly to discussion of physical
skills or academics.
Inequity #4: Caregivers Used Linguistic Bias
When Communicating with Children
Caregivers used different descriptive terms when
interacting with boys and girls, and girls were the object
of more expressions of endearment. From the infant
room to the preschool rooms, terms such as honey,
sweetie, and cuddle bug were used to refer to girls.
While the term honey was occasionally used to refer
to one of the boys, more often they were simply called
by name or by a stereotypical nickname such as Bud.
Caregivers also used gender-biased terms to refer to all
children. You guys was the only way that groups of
children were addressed in this childcare center. Comments such as, You guys are cleaning up so well for
me today, and You guys can have a turn next, were
pervasive, even when the group consisted entirely of females.
Linguistic bias can interfere with opportunities that
males and females should have in schools and childcare
settings. It is the responsibility of caregivers to use language in a way that fosters opportunity and equity (Fennimore, 2000). By using terms such as children and
preschoolers, rather than boys and girls and you
guys, caregivers avoid stereotyping that inappropriately
points out differences (Henkin, 1998).
Inequity #5: Gender Separation in Selection of Toys,
Activities, and Playmates Was Set by Age 3
Children in the older toddler room consistently exhibited gender separation in their choice of toys, activities and playmates. Girls played more often with each
other than with boys and showed preferences for dolls,
baby bottles, shopping carts, play purses, play telephones, and coloring activities. Boys were more apt to

Chick, Heilman-Houser, and Hunter

select squirt guns, trucks, jeeps, puzzles, blocks, and activities such as bowling. In the older toddler room, Tiffany and Carly were playing shopping. They stuffed
their purses full of small toys, and Tiffany was overheard saying, Yes, Ill buy you the book. Its on sale.
In the preschool rooms, the children often danced, and
the 3- and 4-year-old girls brought in their Backstreet
Boys CDs to supply the music. These same girls also
spent considerable time talking on the phone, as they
were encouraged to do by caregivers. Caregivers played
along, often indicating to the girls that another female,
such as their mother or Britney Spears, was on the line.
One morning in the preschool room, all the girls wanted
help making paper fans, and all of the boys wanted help
making paper airplanes.
As soon as children know they are female or male,
they start to choose gender-typed activities and toys.
Preschool children begin to explore adult roles and roleplay the adults in their lives (Pidgeon, 1994). In this
childcare setting, girls were more frequently observed to
experiment with adult roles, many of which were gender
typed, such as playing house, talking on the phone, and
shopping. Play has a major role in the social construction of gender (Thorne, 1993).
Inequity #6: The Toys That Are Available to Children
Are Often Stereotyped
In the young toddler room, all the children were
girls. Seemingly as a consequence, the toys available to
them included rocking chairs, washer and dryer sets,
kitchen sets, dress-up clothes, a shopping cart, baby
dolls, and a twirl around play set. There were no blocks,
building sets, tool sets, trucks, or cars. Toy colors were
often gender typed as well. For example, the rocking
chairs, kitchen sets, and shopping carts were pink. Different behaviors were also encouraged. There were numerous telephones in the room, and the girls were frequently encouraged to use them in play. In the infant
room, a girl was told that a toy she was playing with
was too hard for her. The caregiver suggested that she
wouldnt be able to pull it apart because she didnt
have muscles. From an early age, girls and boys are
routinely given different types of toys for play, and
eventually they choose gender-typed toys and play activities (Pidgeon, 1994).
When the caregivers in the young toddler room
read to the children, the main characters in the books
were usually male. The one book that had a female character portrayed a mother preparing breakfast and going
shopping. In the infant room, books chosen by the caregiver had male protagonists exclusively. On a particular

Impact of Child Care on Gender Roles

morning, the main characters were Roger the Racer and
Tommy the Tugboat. It is essential that caregivers read
books that promote gender equity and female competency so that children do not acquire gender bias in their
reading preferences (Chick & Heilman-Houser, 2000).


Themes Representing Barriers Being Broken

couraged the girls to be verbally assertive about their

wants and needs, while also encouraging the boys to
channel their aggression in more nurturing ways. In addition, the instructions use gentle hands and use your
words allowed caregivers to be positive with children,
rather than simply informing them of what they should
not do.

Three themes were encountered indicative of gender barriers being broken. Each will be discussed and
examples provided.


Caregivers Reinforced Girls for Athletic Interests and

Desire for Male-Dominated Careers
During snack time in the older preschool room, the
children were discussing favorite after school activities. Within the discussion, the following conversation
took place:
Im going to soccer tonight. (Alyssa)
Does anyone else from here go to soccer? (Caregiver)
I want to be a cheerleader. (Emily)
What are you going to be, Sonia? (Caregiver)
A doctor. (Sonia)
Thats a good thing to be. (Caregiver)
Im going to be an ice cream maker. (Donna)

In these conversations caregivers encouraged girls to

participate in sports and male-dominated fields, such as
medicine. Gender-typed pursuits, such as cheerleading,
were neither reinforced nor discouraged.
Caregivers Encouraged Boys to Participate in
Traditionally Female Dominated Activities
Neither boys nor girls from infancy to preschool
age were verbally discouraged from participating in activities or playing with available toys. In the older toddler room, several boys enjoyed playing dress up in
frilly skirts. One caregiver even saved a favorite outfit
for a little boy who needed to do a chore before he was
allowed to play.
Caregivers Implemented and Reinforced Equitable
Classroom Management Strategies That Encouraged
Development of Appropriate Social Skills
In both the toddler and preschool rooms, caregivers
used effective and equitable classroom management
strategies that encouraged problem resolution and caring
attitudes. When children, both boys and girls, were aggressive toward peers, caregivers instructed them to use
gentle hands and use your words to solve problems.
Disagreements often ended with children discussing an
issue and hugging one another. These strategies en-

This study revealed that interactions that affect gender socialization and gender-role development occur frequently in a childcare setting. Moreover, many of the
same gender inequity themes present in school settings
were evident. Caregivers in the center provided some
opportunities for gender barriers to be broken. This
study suggests that children who spend full days in a
childcare environment learn much about what it means
in such a setting to be a boy or a girl. Children also
learn gender roles at home and bring rules of gender
socialization into their childcare settings. For these reasons, and since so many children now spend so much of
their time in childcare centers, it should be seen as the
responsibility of caregivers to be attentive to and reinforce gender-fair behaviors. While the themes presented
here need to be substantiated through further research in
other childcare centers, the researchers offer the following recommendations for caregivers and preschool
1. Actively challenge gender stereotypes by monitoring the actions and language of caregivers, as well as those of the children.
2. Evaluate the books read to young children to ensure they are
free of gender bias. Teachers often choose books based on
personal preference, without considering the appropriateness
of gender messages.
3. Ensure that a variety of toys are available to all children, and
avoid gender-typed colors, such as pink.
4. Give girls caregiver-directed time in block and building centers, and give boys the same in housekeeping and cooking
5. Maintain gender balance in each room so there are opportunities for interaction between boys and girls. This also gives
caregivers more opportunities to challenge gender stereotypes.
6. Consider the consequences of all-female staffs and the hidden messages this may send to children. Both boys and girls
could benefit from male role models who are positive and
7. Reinforce children for playing with nonstereotyped toys, participating in nontraditional activities, and demonstrating a
wide range of behaviors and emotions (Evans, 1998).
8. Ensure the curriculum is gender fair through self-evaluation
and peer observation (Evans, 1998).


Chick, Heilman-Houser, and Hunter

9. When possible, maintain mixed-gender groups during play
time or center time (Henkin, 1998).
10. Ensure mixed-gender teams in games or any type of competition (Henkin, 1998).

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