Compare theories of the early development of gender
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Published: Thu, 12 Oct 2017
Compare and contrast theories of the early development of gender
When a child is born, perhaps the first question one will ask is: “Is it a boy or a girl?”, and the answer to this question will, in many ways, shape that child’s future in terms of their treatment by others, their role in society and their own self concept. But by what means do these things, particularly the latter aspect, occur? How do children become aware of their own gender identity and that of others, and to what extent does this awareness direct their behaviour?
Initial interest in gender development mainly focussed on stimulus-response reinforcement of behaviour. In essence those in the child’s social environment (primarily parents) were thought to reward gender consistent behaviour and punish behaviour that was inconsistent (Bandura, 1969). In this manner boys would be encouraged to engage in ‘boy-ish’ pastimes, such as rough-and-tumble play and playing with blocks and trucks but inhibited in behaviour that could be classed as feminine such as crying or asking for help. Conversely, girls would be encouraged in feminine play and behaviour, being given toys such as dolls and talking about feelings, but discouraged from masculine behaviour such climbing trees or being overly independent.
Clearly one of the ways to evaluate this theory is to consider the extent to which parents actually do treat their children differently depending on their gender. A large review of the literature to date was undertaken by Maccoby and Jacklin (1974) who concluded that there was relatively little evidence that parents were making this male/female distinction in their treatment of their children, although other authors have suggested that they may have missed subtle differences in treatment by concentrating on broad categories (e.g. Malim & Birch, 1998). Other authors have found differences such as boys more often being offered trucks and blocks and being encouraged to engage in more physical activity, where girls are offered dolls (Smith & Lloyd, 1978), or that boys and girls are reinforced in gender appropriate behaviours particularly by their fathers, and with particular paternal disapproval being shown if their sons engage in ‘feminine’ activities (Langlois & Downs, 1980).
However, it has also been shown that nursery school teachers reinforce ‘feminine’ behaviours such as quite play and remaining near an adult in both boys and girls (Fagot, 1985), but that this reinforcement is less effective for boys, particularly when they are already engaged in masculine activities such as rough-and-tumble playing.
Additionally, as Maccoby (2000) points out, when parents do treat their children differently in light of their gender, it is hard to say whether this is because they are training their child to behave in gender appropriate ways, or if conversely the child prefers gender-typical behaviour and is in a sense ‘training’ his parent to treat him in such a way.
An extension to the theory of socialisation, now mainly referred to as social learning theory, was subsequently proposed by Bandura (1965) who put forward the notion that children could learn how to behave in ways that were appropriate to their gender not only through the medium of reinforcement but also through observation or modelling of the behaviour of other members of their gender-group. This could be through watching real life situation or through what they heard in stories or saw on television (Mischel, 1966). Clearly, a child observes a wealth of information daily, but does not model himself on all of it – only that which is gender appropriate. This leads to a problem when using a purely social learning theory of gender development, as the child himself must be actively choosing which behaviour is appropriate for him.
The idea of the child actively structuring his cognitions, rather than merely passively being moulded by events in his social world led to the cognitive development theory of gender. Its first proponent was Kohlberg (1966), whose theory also dealt with putative stages of gender development. These stages consist of basic gender identity, gender stability and gender constancy.
In this model, basic gender identity is achieved at 2 ½ to 3 years when the child is aware of their gender, but believe that it might change. Gender stability occurs between 3 ½ and 4 ½ years when the child understands that gender is stable over time, but believes that it may not be over situations. At this stage, for example, a girl will answer that when she grows up she will be a mummy, but when children are presented with dolls dressed in transparent clothing so that the genitals are visible, they make the gender decision based on the clothes worn rather than genitals where a discrepancy exists (McConaghy, 1979). Finally gender constancy is achieved, typically between the ages of 4 ½ and 7 years, and the child is aware that gender is stable over both time and situation. This can be tested via questions such as ‘If you wanted to could you be a girl?’ or by showing pictures of other children and asking ‘Could he be a girl if he grew his hair very long?’ (Smith et al, 2003).
In fact, there is much evidence, including cross-cultural studies, to suggest that these stages do exist and are quite stable in their development. Kohlberg (1966) maintained that when the child had achieved a stage of gender development where his concept of his own gender was stable, he would then actively seek out situations and activities that were gender appropriate. He believed that a girl, who knew she was a girl and therefore wished to do ‘girl things’ would find the opportunity to do so reinforcing in itself. In effect his theory reverses the causality supposed by social learning theory so that rather than a child developing gender identity due to attending to same-sex models, the child attends to same-sex models because they support and reinforce the concept of gender identity which they already have (Eysenck, 2000)
Empirically, there is some support for this theory. When children have their gender constancy measured, it is found that those with higher gender constancy are more affected attitudinally and behaviourally by, for example, television commercials that depict toys as being suitable for boys or girls (Ruble, Balaban & Cooper, 1981).
A related concept is the idea of gender schemas (Martin and Halverson, 1981). A gender schema is a set of cognitions that can be used to structure gender knowledge. They are originally based around an ingroup/outgroup division (Martin & Halverson, 1987) about what sort of activities and behaviours are typical and suitable for boys and girls, and become more sophisticated as the child uses them to further understanding about the behaviour of their ingroup and thus their own gender identity.
Again, there is some empirical support for this theory. Martin & Halverson (1983) showed children a series of pictures some of which were consistent with their gender schemas, such as a girl playing with a doll and a boy playing with a gun, and some of which were inconsistent. It was hypothesised that since, schemas are used to organise information meaningfully, it would be harder to encode the pictures which were schema-inconsistent. Sure enough, when tested the following week, children often remembered pictures containing inconsistent information inaccurately – for example if they had seen a picture of a girl playing with a gun, they would ‘remember’ that the protagonist had been a boy.
Both the social learning theory and the cognitive development theory have many strengths and weaknesses. The main strength of social learning theory is the full consideration it takes of the social context of learning, whilst its weaknesses revolve around its depiction of the child as a passive individual, and the fact that the influence of reinforcement has not been consistently shown to have a major effect. Conversely, the cognitive development perspective is praised for its focus on the child as an active constructor of his cognitions, but criticised for focussing too much on the individual child and so discounting important social and environmental influences. In the case of gender schemas, an additional criticism is the lack of attempt to explain why they arise in the first place (Eysenck, 2000).
Bussey & Bandura (1999), have proposed their social cognitive theory, as a complementary way to combine the most useful aspects of social learning theory, cognitive development theory and gender schemas. In its essence, it suggests that there are a large variety of complex mechanisms which determine gender development. These are said to include, but are not limited to: self regulatory mechanisms, where the child adjusts his behaviour to an internally accepted standard; identification with a peer group, where the child behaves in a way that is socially acceptable to his ingroup; and motivational mechanisms, where the child imitates behaviour that he expects he will be able to succeed at, and will thus find reinforcing (Smith et al, 2003).
Therefore as Maccoby (2000) points out, the present state of gender development research has led to “a dual perspective focussing on individual differences. Its central themes are that children differ degree to which they become sex-typed as a result of: (a) the strength of the socialisation pressures they have experienced; and (b) the nature and coherence of their gender schemas”. However, Maccoby (2000) and other authors think that while these theories have value, they do not take enough into account the underlying genetic and psychobiological factors that contribute to gender.
An example of a strand of research which attempts to synthesise these factors with existing theories is the biosocial theory (Money and Erhardt, 1972). This approach is based on cases where there is a discrepancy between biological sex and gender identity. Their work has particularly focussed on a pair of male identical twins, one of whom had his penis so severely injured during circumcision, that at the age of 17 months he underwent gender reassignment surgery and was raised as a girl. Initial reports by the parents suggested that this had been very successful along several dimensions, with the child taking up a feminine role, suggesting that social factors are very powerful in gender development. However, a subsequent study suggested that the child was somewhat socially isolated, and unhappy with his female role (Diamond, 1982), which suggests that biological factors may be equally important and more difficult to overcome than first suggested. Clearly this strand of research has much to offer our understanding.
In conclusion, there are many theories concerning the early development of gender, and while no theory is completely satisfactory, Bussey & Bandura’s (1999) social cognitive theory currently emerges pre-eminent as it combines the most robust elements of social learning theory and cognitive development theory. Nevertheless, until some over-arching theory is proposed which also considers the influence of biological factors, every account of gender development remains somewhat incomplete.
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