You are on page 1of 3

Avoiding Gender Stereotypes

How Kids Understand Gender
When my daughter Rachel was 4, she decided she would wear only dresses to
preschool. Before long, her favorite activity became polishing her nails and applying
pretend lipstick. As a proud feminist, I was flabbergasted. Where, I wondered, was
this behavior coming from?
As it turns out, Rachel was acting on a host of messages -- some subtle, some not
so subtle -- that she'd been receiving since birth. "Research shows that infants can
tell the difference between males and females as early as their first year," says
Elaine Blakemore, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Indiana University Purdue
University, in Fort Wayne. What's more, they begin forming gender stereotypes
almost as soon as they know they are boys or girls.
Gary Levy, Ph.D., director of the Infant Development Center at the University of
Wyoming, in Laramie, studied 10-month-olds to see if they could comprehend
gender-related information. "We showed the babies videos of certain objects paired
with either a male or a female face," he says. "The children became accustomed to
seeing certain objects with a man's face and others with a woman's face, and they
recognized when we violated this pattern."
It's not until kids are 3 or 4, however, that they really begin to work out for
themselves what it means to be a boy or a girl. As they gradually test their theories
through observation and imitation, many preschoolers begin adopting stereotypical
behaviors. Girls, for example, may spend most of their time in the dress-up or
kitchen corner of their preschool classroom. Little boys may engage in activities that
make them feel powerful, such as constructing block towers and then knocking
them down with a toy truck.
Although many progressive parents, like me, are shocked to see their children
conforming to such narrowly defined gender play roles, we may inadvertently
perpetuate those stereotypes. "Adults aren't aware of how much they reinforce
stereotyping by complimenting boys and girls in stereotypical ways -- commenting
on how pretty a little girl looks in her dress, for example," says Diane Ruble, Ph.D.,
director of the Child Studies Program at New York University, in New York City. "And
even the most enlightened fathers often become uncomfortable when they see their
sons playing with dolls or exhibiting other traditional feminine behavior. One 3-yearold boy I know liked wearing his hair in a ponytail. But one day, when his mom
asked if he wanted her to fix his hair in a ponytail, he replied, 'No -- Daddy would be
mad!'"
Preschoolers also pick up gender clues from older siblings, teachers, and, perhaps
most insidiously, the media. "The action figures for boys advertised on TV and seen
in TV shows almost invariably have big muscles and are depicted as powerful and

sweet." Michelle Graves. 'Pretend you're the dad and it's time for you to come home from work. Who are you angry at?' " Dr. in Boston.it'll be so much easier to climb the monkey bars. I'm the mom and I'm taking care of the baby. Ph. when asked. an educational-research foundation in Ypsilanti.. "I love to see you in the sandbox" or "Wearing pants today was a good idea -. witnessed such behavior firsthand during classroom observation. boys may be more likely to participate in creative make-believe games or to practice their fine motor skills with art projects. Girls who regularly play with boys may spend more time outdoors. you might tell your daughter. the girls tell the boys.. Michigan. of course. a professor of human . Janice Garfinkel. Reinforce behaviors that shatter stereotypes. 'Girls are so stupid!' try saying something like 'It sounds like you're angry at someone. boys would deny having done so. "Sometimes I feel like crying too. may be clinging to outmoded stereotypes." says Charles Flatter. Levin suggests. For example." Question all generalizations.' I always ask the kids. Preschoolers are drawn to these extremes.D. Ph. Nevertheless. and expand the range of activities for each gender. After playing in a housekeeping area. a professor of education at Wheelock College. When they're playing with children of the opposite sex. Boys and girls who play together tend to engage in more varied activities. and author of Remote Control Childhood? Combating the Hazards of Media Culture (NAEYC. "The dolls marketed to girls are pretty. it's not unusual for preschool girls to go through a pink and frilly phase and for preschool boys to spend their days imitating superheroes. a teacher in South Bellmore. for example. New York. these phases pass. "Parents should review their behavior to make sure they're not doing or saying anything that feeds into something harmful. Expert Tips for Breaking Stereotypes Encourage mixed-gender playdates.D." A father may tell a son in tears. In this culture. and sexy. Moms and dads themselves." says Diane Levin. constantly tries to probe generalizations in her classroom. "If. 1998). make a point of reinforcing those that challenge the stereotype. 'Do you know any moms who go out to work each day?'" Tune in to your own biases. building their bodies through vigorous exercise. According to some experts. in both their thinking and their actions. your son comes home complaining. Rather than rule out certain stereotypical behaviors. Encourage your child to deal with other kids as individuals in specific situations rather than as representatives of their gender. it's important for parents to guide their preschoolers' thinking to make sure that they don't end up with lasting gender ideas based on stereotypes. Here are a few suggestions. "In preschool.active. a consultant with High/Scope.

" Copyright© 2004. All content here. should be considered as opinion only. Online reference: http://www. Reprinted with permission from the March 2001 issue of Parents magazine. "Boys and girls both need to be shown that there are alternatives to the classic stereotypes.parents. in College Park. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others. including advice from doctors and other health professionals.com/toddlers-preschoolers/development/behavioral/avoidinggender-stereotypes/ .development at the University of Maryland.