Gender stereotypes in infants and toddlers

Boys or girls: Are there any innate differences?

At birth, the brains of boys and girls differ only in reproductive function. Children aged 1 to 3 years old therefore have the same cognitive (intelligence, reasoning, memory, attention, spatial identification) and physical skills (Vidal, cited in Piraud-Rouet, 2017). The differences that develop between girls and boys are attributable to the plasticity of the brain, that is to say, its ability to transform with learning and environment (Piraud-Rouet, 2017). As for the psychological and behavioural differences between sexes, while they tend to increase from childhood to adulthood, they are nearly absent in infants and toddlers (Cossette, 2017). The only differences observed at birth relate to the average size of the brain, larger in baby boys, and motor activity, slighter greater in boys. Other differences, such as verbal expression or preference for some toys, emerge between the ages of six months and one year, the age at which children are already subject to social influences, which vary according to the child’s sex (Vidal, 2015). Variability among individual brains outweighs the variability between sexes (Vidal, 2017).

Development of sexual identity

Although there are almost no differences between male and female infants at birth, with the exception of the reproductive organs, children nevertheless gradually forge their sexual identities. At birth, children are unaware of their sex. They learn gradually, as their neurons connect and their cognitive functions develop (Vidal, 2015). According to Kohlberg’s cognitive-behaviour theory, children acquire the concept of gender in three stages.

During the first three years of life, children experience the sexual identity stage: they learn how to distinguish their own sex and that of others by focussing on apparent physical characteristics (Boyd and Bee, 2015). More precisely, by around 2 years of age, children have the mental abilities they need to identify themselves as girls or boys (Vidal, 2015). At this age, they know about gender roles, recognise typical gender-specific occupations, engage in gender-typical activities and behaviours and choose attributes associated with the gender to which they belong: games and toys, clothing, accessories, etc. (Ducret and Le Roy, 2012).

At about 3 to 4 years of age, gender stability appears, with children understanding that an individual’s sex remains the same over time, that girls will become women and boys, men. However, children of this age do not yet understand that sex also remains the same regardless of the situation. For instance, in the minds of children of this age, a boy wearing a skirt becomes a girl (Ducret and Le Roy, 2012). At this stage, children therefore regard gender role violations as unacceptable and incorrect (Amboulé Abath, 2009). They still group people by their physical attributes (Mieeya and Rouyer, 2013). Ducret and Le Roy (2012) also note that by the age of three, children become aware that adults behave differently towards them depending on the sex of the child. It is at this age that children adopt gender stereotypes to varying degrees, hence the importance of acting from early childhood to deconstruct such stereotypes (Papalia et al., 2018).

At 5 to 7 years of age, children reach the age of gender constancy, during which they understand that an individual’s sex remains the same over time and that it is defined by biology (Boyd and Bee, 2015). Children now realise that identity is not influenced by changes in appearance or gender-related activities although this identity only becomes permanently stable at around 7 years of age. Other studies suggest, however, that the construction of sexual identity is dynamic and can be reshaped in children later as they develop (Mieeya and Rouyer, 2013).

What causes gendered socialisation?

If boys and girls have the same capacities at birth, how is it that just a few years later, they have developed behaviours and adopted roles strongly associated with what is expected of children of their sex? The innate capacities of children, which are invariable according to sex, are in fact modeled by their environment (Piraud-Rouet, 2017). The education they receive within their family units and at educational daycare centres therefore plays a critical role in the break between what is presented in the public space and how these observations are internalised by children or how these stereotypes are reinforced (SCF, 2018).

The family is the very first place where children are socialised; there, they learn gender-typical roles, first by watching their parents who significantly reinforce the difference further during their children’s second year of life (Amboulé Abath, 2009). Many studies have shown that the entourage of infants or toddlers does not exhibit the same attitudes towards girls and boys, depending on their sex, (Piraud-Rouet, 2017) even before children are born. For instance, boys’ and girls’ rooms are decorated differently and different toys and clothing are purchased depending on the children’s sex. An experiment involving newborns showed that their parents described boys as being big, sturdy and strong whereas girls were described as being small, cute and fragile (, 2019). Several studies have even shown that parents react more positively when their sons play with toys and trucks and their girls, with dolls or jewellery (Boyd and Bee, 2015). According to one study, “parents take care of their daughters, keep them close and mother them. Girls are expected to be obedient, docile and tidy, and have less choice when it comes to activities.” “They learn to depend on adults rather than relying on themselves. They sense the behaviours expected of them by their parents and other adults, internalising them and acting accordingly.” (Duru-Bellat 1990: 97) Moreover, the report points out that these attitudes and behaviours on the part of parents are perpetuated by educators at educational institutions, who in doing so continue the socialisation begun by the family” (Amboulé Abath, 2009, p. 20).

In heteroparental families, “it is the mothers who exert more influence over behaviours; thus, daughters whose mothers have stereotyped behaviours adopt them and, in turn, exhibit the same behaviours while sons of the same mothers, adopting their behaviours, exhibit behaviours that are less stereotypical for their gender”. (Papalia, et al., 2018, p. 207) Some studies have also shown that the children of lesbian mothers feel less pressure to conform to gender stereotypes and adopt less discriminatory behaviour towards the opposite sex. Similar studies of homosexual fathers have not been reported.

As for sibling influence, “older children tend to be more influenced by their parents while younger children put greater effort into copying the behaviours and attitudes of their older siblings”. (McHale et al., 2001) Children who have an older sibling of the same sex tend to adopt more gender-related behaviours than those who have an older brother or sister of the opposite sex”. (Papalia et al., 2018, p. 209) On the whole, interactions within the family environment will guide tastes, aptitudes and personality traits to bring them more closely into line with the standards for men and women of the society in which the children exist (Vidal, 2015).

Educational childcare centres and kindergartens for 4- and 5-year-olds are other environments where certain standards, attitudes, habits and knowledge are instilled in children and where they learn what is desirable, even reasonable as goals for adult life. Gender-differentiated socialisation reproduces not only inequalities between women and men, but at the same time limits the possibilities of infants and toddlers (Amboulé Abath, 2009). In a study conducted in France, Murcier (2007) showed that early childhood educators had stereotypical expectations, proposed gender-based activities and did not treat boys and girls in the same way. For instance, educators tolerate more unruly behaviors in boys than in girls and let boys monopolise sound space by allowing them to speak more often (Dafflon Novelle, 2009).

Peers, whether in educational settings or elsewhere, also contribute to the gendered socialisation of children. By the age of three, children are already playing in groups of the same sex, which reinforces gender behaviours. (Papalia et al., 2018) The influence of peers would seem to be more marked in boys: when barely able to walk, they already pay more attention to the reactions of other boys to their own behavior than to the educator. (Maccoby, 1998) This trend continues and may even increase with age.

Finally, the children’s material environment (toys, media, books, etc.) also influences their adherence to sexual stereotypes. Play allows the children to acquire and exercise motor, cognitive and social skills that will have a major impact on their later development. Various studies have shown a link between the practice of visuospatial type games (block games and other construction games) and the results of visuospatial aptitude tests. Play activities could have a greater influence yet on the lives and career choices of girls and boys (Cossette, 2017).

From birth, children indeed evolve in a gendered environment; rooms, toys and clothes differ for boys and girls (Vidal, 2015). Parents and other adults offer different toys to girls and boys long before they ask for them or clearly display distinct preferences, reinforcing adherence to stereotypes (Cossette, 2017). These socialising agents also help reinforce gender roles. “For instance, children are very good at finding their way around a toy store and recognising their space. Indeed, for many toys there is a girl version and a boy version, like pink bikes and blue bikes. This is a sales strategy to encourage parents to buy more. It is not easy for parents to hand down big sister’s pink bike to her little brother (Ducret and Le Roy, 2012, 10), and this reinforces stereotypes. Furthermore, a number of toys for girls already strongly encourage them to pay particular attention to their physical appearance, reinforcing in them these stereotypes: makeup kits, hairdressing and manicure accessories, dress up games, etc. The universe of princesses, where beauty is put forward as something of paramount importance, leads girls to count on their appearance while still very young (SCF, 2018).

Sex and gender identity

Gender identity is described as the intrinsic feeling of being a boy or a girl or somewhere between these two poles. So there is no connection to sexual orientation, which refers to the physical attraction or love felt towards one kind or the other. Research suggests that gender identity is established by the age of three (Table nationale de lutte contre l’homophobie et la transphobie des réseaux de l’éducation, 2017). Young children can therefore feel a gender identity that differs from their biological sex. It is still hard today to explain why some children have a gender identity different from that attributed to them at birth. One thing is certain; the education they receive cannot explain why individual children have a gender identity different from their biological sex (SCF 2018).

Consequently, an inclusive educational childcare environment that does not reinforce gender stereotypes will enable children who do not identify with their biological sex to feel accepted and safe. In fact, if educators allow all children to take part in the activities of their choice, regardless of the toys, clothing or activities traditionally associated with one sex or the other, children who feel a gender variance will feel more included.

Things to keep in mind when dealing with children

Several elements must thus be taken into account when working in early childhood education, and the goal is to avoid reinforcing gender stereotypes. As children develop their gender identity between the ages of 0 and 7, early childhood is a critical time to provide all children with diverse models and opportunities, without confining them to traditional roles or gender stereotypes. There are several tools available in the Ideas for action section to make your educational childcare space and teaching practices inclusive and free of gender stereotypes. Finally, we need to be aware that we ourselves are products of gendered socialisation and that, unintentionally, we contribute to reinforcing them. Keep your critical eye open and be ever ready to ferret out those stereotypes!


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