In this presentation the development of gender roles in children and adolescents will be covered. Specifically, the questions of how perception interactions with gender roles, how do gender roles change over time, and how observable behaviors indicate changes in gender identity will be answered.
Gender appears to have a significant impact on the areas of child development, behavior, and adjustment from infancy through adolescence (Bee & Boyd, 2010). It is also clear that the progression of gender development is heavily linked to cognitive development. The first concept to form for the child is gender identity, which is simply the ability to differentiate between boys and girls. The determination of sex, in the beginning, is predicated on the perception of hair length. Second, is the formation of gender stability. Just as the realization of object permanence is paramount in the cognitive develop of an infant, so the understanding that people remain one gender throughout their lives is key to the development of gender roles. Last to occur is the awareness that the biological sex of a person does not change even if their hair length or clothing does change—gender constancy. This last phase of development seems to coincide with the discovery of genital differences between boys and girls.
The development of gender roles encompasses the entirety of childhood and adolescent growth; however, the key components of gender identity, gender stability, and gender constancy are usually present by age 4 or 5. Between the ages of 9 months and 12 months an infant begins to be able to categorize people by male or female faces, with length of hair being a primary determinate. By age 2 or 3 children are able to correctly label other people as male or female by using both hair length and clothing. Furthermore, the ability to understand that gender is stable throughout a lifetime by about age 4 or so. As predicated on the ability to at least rudimentarily distinguish between male and female genitalia, gender constancy usually occurs between the ages of 4 and 5. As Boyd & Bee (2010) summarized, “…children as young as 2 or 3 know their own sex and that of people around them, but children do not have a fully developed concept of gender until they are 5 or 6” (p. 272).
Once children have a firm grasp on the fact that gender is permanent and present no matter physical appearances, they inevitably seek to find rules of conduct and behavior to govern the implementation of gender roles. There are several factors that mediate the perception of gender during childhood and adolescence. First, there is a strong us vs. them mentality that overshadows cross-gender, peer relationships from the years 5 to 7. Second, there is also the tendency for children to overgeneralize sex roles and gender stereotypes before the adolescent years. To young children the idea of gender stability translates into a set of absolute moral rules that govern gender-typed behavior. It is not until about the age of 9 that children begin to realize that gender is innate as well as learned, resulting in an adherence to more flexible social conventions governing gender roles.
Social learning theory is built upon the ideas of Bandura and Mischel, hence they espouse the forces of direct reinforcement and modeling as the primary means of developing gender identity. Through the media, parental reinforcement, and leisure activities children are exposed to and reinforced towards an idea of gender roles that helps build their own gender identity. Conversely, gender schema theory posits that the gender identity is the product of the cognitive representation of an either/or category that acts as a catch-all for further information relating to gender differences. Also, gender references are so prevalent in social interactions and language that there is an abundance of information to categorize under the either/or category of gender. Finally, the biological approach to gender identity emphasizes the androgenic effects of testosterone during prenatal neurological development. During several animal trials a clear distinction between gender-typed behavior could be seen by simply manipulating the exposure of testosterone during development.
The observable behavior that coincides with the realization of gender identity, gender stability, and gender constancy follow a logical progression from playmate preferences to stereotyped behavior, to same-gender teaching. The behavior of children is sex-typed long before their ideas of gender stereotypes are developed. For instance, infants show some preference towards same-sex playmates long before they understand that gender is stable over a lifetime. Moreover, peer relationships during childhood are largely same-sex. As gender stereotyped behavior sets in as absolute moral rules same-sex teaching—instruction and modeling of sex-appropriate behavior—beings to take hold during same-sex interactions.