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Children's Ideas About Gender Differences May Surprise You

Kids assume all gender differences (even playing with tea sets) are innate.

In the previous posts, I have described research showing that our constant "use" of gender – to label, sort, color-code, and segregate children – leads them to create gender stereotypes. Yet, many parents assume that their children don't hold gender stereotypes, often because they work hard to raise egalitarian children. Unfortunately, most children do endorse stereotypes, at times really strong ones. It is common, for example, for children to say that only boys can be President, or only girls are kind.

Children even take their stereotypes about gender a step further. In a cleverly titled research paper, “Boys Will Be Boys; Cows Will Be Cows,” Marianne Taylor, Marjorie Rhodes, and Susan Gelman, researchers in psychology at the University of Michigan, describe their research in which they asked five- and six-year-old children about the characteristics of gender groups and animal species groups. They asked children what would happen if a cow was adopted at birth by a group of pigs. They wanted to know if children thought the cow raised by pigs would grow up mooing or oinking. They also asked children what would happen if a baby girl was adopted at birth by her uncle, who happened to live on an island inhabited only by men and boys. Would she, when she grew bigger, like to sew and play with tea sets, or would she enjoy the activities she was raised to do, such as building things and fishing ? In other words, the researchers wanted to know if children thought girls were born with a girl “essence” (including taking care of babies, sewing, and putting on makeup) and boys were born with a boy “essence” (including playing with trucks, building things, and wanting to be a firefighter) as core traits that would exist even if the child never had any exposure to those things.

Not surprising to the researchers, they found that children assume cows always moo, even among their adopted family of pigs. This is actually an accurate assumption, as cows and pigs are fundamentally different species. Cows are born with innate and unchangeable characteristics that make them moo (and not oink), and pigs are born with a different set of innate and unchangeable characteristics that make them oink (and not moo). Children understood that there was an underlying “essence” that the animals were born with that couldn’t be changed or altered, no matter what they were exposed to or what they were taught.

Here’s where children’s assumptions about innate differences err. Children also assume that girls always play with makeup and tea sets and boys always collect baseball cards and play with fire trucks, even if the girls and boys were never exposed to these things. In other words, they assume that collecting baseball cards is as innate to a boy as mooing is to a cow. A cow can’t do pig things, just like a girl can’t do boy things and a boy can’t do girl things. Children, based on the findings in this study, assume that girls are born with innate and unchangeable characteristics that fundamentally differ from the innate and unchangeable characteristics that boys are born with. No amount of exposure or teaching can change our traits and interests. In other words, boys and girls are as different as cows and pigs.

This is an important study because it points out how rigid children’s thinking is when it comes to gender differences. It is similar to the old saying “Give him an inch and he will take a mile.” Give kids a little push toward focusing on gender differences (and, in fact, we are giving them a massive push with our constant use of gender), and they will run with it—making us entirely different species in the process.

Does it really matter whether children think all girls like to sew and all boys like to collect baseball cards? We know that with increased labeling of gender, our tendency to think that all boys have one set of attributes and all girls have another increases. But does that matter when we are raising our own kids? Yes, because once these stereotypes kick in for a child, they are extremely hard to change.

People, children included, have a strong drive to remember information that is consistent with what they know or think they know. This drive is likely hardwired into us. We like to make predictions about the world. It helps us navigate a sometimes scary environment. I like knowing that all dogs bark, all cats meow, and all lions roar. It helps me know how to interact with a new dog or cat, and helps me remember to avoid interacting with lions.

In the same way, the world becomes a more dependable place when I can predict how “all” boys or “all” girls will act. The problem is that all boys don’t act the same, nor do all girls. Therefore, to keep our ste- reotypes (that is to say, predictions) intact, we have to do some fancy mental tricks.

To help us believe that our predictions are always accurate, we are good at forgetting exceptions to our rules or distorting those rules in our mind. Research by developmental psychologist Carol Martin (and others since her) has shown children a picture of a man standing in front of a stove while telling them that the man likes to cook dinner for his family. When children were asked about this man later, they didn’t alter their stereotype about women cooking. Instead, they misremembered the story character as a woman or remembered the man as repairing the stove instead of cooking. Some children, when they were shown a picture of a female school principal, later remembered her as the “lunch lady” or secretary. Similarly, some children remembered the male cook at a hospital as a doctor—a nice promotion for him.

Schools, in a noble effort to interest more girls in math and science, often try to combat stereotypes by showing children images of famous female scientists. “See, they did it. You can do it, too!” Unfortunately, these attempts rarely work, according to the research. Girls are more likely to remember the women as lab assistants.

Once children learn that being a boy or a girl is important, they come up with their own, often inaccurate, explanations about how and why boys and girls differ. They assume boys and girls are different in deep, fundamental ways. They assume that culturally specific traits, like wanting to sew or be a firefighter, are innate and biologically driven. Unfortunately, once these stereotypes are in place, they are difficult to change unless you address them head on.

Reference: Taylor, Marianne G., Marjorie Rhodes, and Susan A. Gelman. “Boys Will Be Boys; Cows Will Be Cows: Children’s Essentialist Reasoning about Gender Categories and Animal Species.” Child Development 80 (2009): 461–481.

Excerpted from Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: Raising Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes

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