Recently I had a group of kids over for a playdate. At one moment, I found myself at the table doing art projects with two 4-year-olds, a boy and a girl. With a big pile of markers and a dinosaur coloring book, the little boy and I picked out our pages to color. The little girl carefully looked through the dinosaur coloring book and asked if I had any other books to choose from. I brought out the other books I had: a transportation-themed coloring book and an animal coloring book. Carefully, she looked through each of these other books while the little boy and I worked on our dinosaur pages. Finally, she sighed and looking at me with a clear look of exasperation she shouted, “These are all boy coloring books! Where are the girl ones?” Carefully, the three of us then combed through the dinosaur coloring book until we found a page that works. How did we do this? I actually didn’t do anything. The 4-year-olds looked at every picture looking for the most “girl” dinosaur, settling on one with long eyelashes. When I relayed the story to the girl’s parent she laughed and commented that since she could walk, her daughter only had interest in “girl” items. Her observation is confirmed by science. Between 1 and 5 years of age, children develop very strong ideas about gender.
As young as 6 to 9 months of age, infants can pretty reliably distinguish between males and females, usually because of differences in hairstyle and voice pitch. Between 1 and 2, children have generated differential expectations for males and females. In one study, 18-month-old babies looked longer at dolls after being shown female faces, but looked longer at a toy car when being shown male faces. In another study (with a GREAT name: “Men Don’t Put on Lipstick…”), 2 year olds stared longer at gender incongruent activities, such as a man putting on lipstick, than gender conforming activities, such as a woman vacuuming. Girls were aware of gender-norms a little earlier in development than boys (24 months compared to 31 months). By 2.5 years of age, children can reliably label children as “boys” or “girls” and identify certain toys along gender stereotypes (i.e., toy trains go with boys, dolls go with girls). By the time children are 3, most children use gender terms such as “boy” and “girl” in speech, and identify themselves as one or the other. By the time they are 5, children begin to assign certain characteristics and traits by gender, such as thinking of females as warm and kind and males as more assertive.
A preference for gender-compliant toys begins between 1 and 2 years of age. These preferences become stronger across early childhood. The most common way to observe this preference is in the type of toys or play a child selects. Girls are more likely than boys to prefer to play with dolls, toy cooking sets, and dress-up. Girls are more likely to want to play family or house when engaging in pretend play. Boys are more likely to play with cars, sports equipment, and weapons. Boys are more likely to engage in rough-and-tumble play and to use action themes in pretend play (like soldiers or superheroes).
During the second year of life, children also begin to prefer same-gender playmates. Gender segregation of peers increases steadily between 3 and 6 years of age, but will remain pretty consistent after that. These gender segregated peer groups serve to further reinforce ideas about gender and about gender-based play. In other words, boys become more stereotypically “boy” when spending time in boy-only peer groups (i.e., more aggressive, greater activity, more rough-and-tumble play) and girls become more stereotypically “girl” (i.e., lower activity and aggression). During the preschool period, children become aware of children that are not conforming to gender norms. By the time children reach childhood (5 to 7 years of age), children who do not conform to gender norms will be teased by peers, and this is especially true for boys who go against gender stereotypes.
How do children come to these ideas about gender? This is a very hot and controversial topic. Certainly, children pick up on cultural norms surrounding these ideas and so ideas about toys and gender are culturally mediated. How parents interact with each other, how they see messages in media, and in other families all contribute to children’s ideas about what is a typical boy or girl activity. When younger, it seems that temperament is a factor in choosing gender segregated play, because of compatibility behavioral styles and interests. For example, boys may prefer the company of other boys because they are similar in level of activity. Around the time that children segregated into peer groups by gender, children are also beginning to establish a gender identity for themselves, which naturally leads for them to sort into one group or another (and become interested in putting other people into categories). As they get older, peer pressures may additionally motivated gender-segregation. Watching older boys or girls play in a certain way influences how a younger child will play. This force grows stronger over time. For example, imagine a little girl who is very active – this little girl is likely to play with boys when she is younger because she shares the same level of temperamental activity as them – but as she grows, she will be less likely to play with boys, due to the social pressure to fit in with her identity as a “girl.”
As parents and caregivers, our job is to help our children make sense of the world. Some of that means answering awkward questions in public when your 3 year old, who is trying to put everybody into categories of boy or girl, loudly asks if that person is a boy or a girl. It also means being conscious of how we talk to our children about gender and gender-norms. Instead of laughing at a 4-year-old little boy trying on a dress, is there a different way to react? Giving children the opportunity to explore and try out different types of play will only help your child learn better what he or she enjoys (and who they like to play with). We cannot raise our children outside of our culture, so it is important to discuss with your partner and caregivers any values that you have, particularly if they go against the cultural norms. In general, being supportive of your child’s interests and encouraging them to be flexible in who, what, and how they play will only help to develop greater social skills and help them develop healthy ideas about themselves.