Children as young as four already show some awareness that gender roles are flexible and that individual preferences are an acceptable reason for not conforming to gender norms. That’s according to a study with 72 four- to eight-year-olds in the United States, completed by Clare Conry-Murray at Pennsylvania State University and Elliot Turiel at University California, Berkeley. Their findings contrast with a bias in the existing literature towards showing how young children have fixed ideas about gender – for example, studies have shown that four- to five-year-olds believe a child raised entirely by opposite-sex parents would nonetheless display all the traits and preferences of their own biological sex.
For the new research, Conry-Murray and Turiel asked the children a number a questions about parents’ and children’s choices in relation to toys, classes and clothing. Children of all ages showed an awareness of gender norms. For instance, asked whether girls or boys usually babysit more, 90 per cent of the children said that girls tended to do this more often. Similarly, without any other contextual information, most of the children tended to say that parents should make gender-normed choices – for example, that they should give a toy truck to their son rather than their daughter.
The children’s more flexible attitudes first became apparent with a question that asked whether it was okay for gender norms to be reversed in another country – for example, Would it be OK in another country for boys to babysit more? Overall, most children (79 per cent) said this is okay, although there was a tendency for older children to be more accepting of this idea (60-65 per cent of 4-year-olds said it was OK, but this was not high enough to show they were doing anything other than just answering the question randomly).
Another question raised the issue of individual preferences – for instance, the children were asked who should go to the babysitting class – the son or daughter – if, say, the son loves babysitting? This time the children of all ages were more likely to say that the son should do the babysitting, although those aged 6 years and upwards were more likely to give this kind of answer than the 4- and 5-year-olds.
Two final types of question related to rules in the USA and in another country. For instance, “Joey’s parents decide to send him to babysitting class but they learn the school forbids boys from doing the class – is that rule OK or not OK?”, “What about the same rule in another country?” Most of the children (76 per cent) said this rule was not OK, even in another country. However, once again there was an age effect, with older children being more likely to condemn the rule, and the youngest children providing a mix of answers suggesting they could have been guessing.
“Gender norms are not uniformly judged as inflexible even at the youngest ages represented in this study,” the researchers said. Furthermore, from the older children’s open-ended explanations for their answers (the younger children tended not to articulate reasons), it was also clear that most of them did not see adherence to gender norms as morally obligatory. “Insofar as the older children invoked moral obligations it was to reject the regulation of gender-related activities,” the researchers said.
Conry-Murray, C., and Turiel, E. (2012). Jimmy’s Baby Doll and Jenny’s Truck: Young Children’s Reasoning About Gender Norms. Child Development, 83 (1), 146-158 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01696.x