Gender stereotypes and elementary school children

Once they’ve started primary school, children already have a fairly advanced understanding of what it means to be a boy or a girl. In fact, by around 5 to 7 years of age, children understand that an individual’s sex remains constant in all circumstances and the same over time, and that it is defined by biology (Boyd and Bee, 2015). Other studies suggest, however, that the construction of gender identity is dynamic and can be reshaped in children later as they develop (Mieeya and Rouyer, 2013). Whatever the case may be, when they enter primary school, children have very often already developed characteristics traditionally associated with their sex as a result of the differentiated socialization they experienced throughout their early childhood (SCF, 2018).

Development of Gender Identity

Gender identity continues to develop throughout early childhood and usually crystallizes at around the age of seven, although in some people this can vary and continue to be reshaped throughout life (Mieeya and Rouyer, 2013). According to the LGBT Family Coalition (2018, p. 2), gender identity is “an individual’s gender experience which may or may not correspond to their biological sex or the one assigned at birth. Consequently, any individual may identify themselves as a man, a woman or somewhere between these two poles, regardless of their biological sex. All people—regardless of sexual orientation—have a gender identity.” Consequently, it is possible for children of primary school age to wonder about their gender identity. And this is not necessarily directly tied to the children’s interests (games, clothing, models, etc.). “So it is important to avoid thinking, for instance, that because a boy is interested in a so-called feminine activity, he sees himself as a girl, or vice versa. On the contrary, children commonly adopt behaviours that are socially attributed to the opposite sex and such behaviours have nothing to do with the gender to which a child identifies inwardly” (SCF, 2018). The web comic Assigned male, by Sophie Labelle, plunges us into the universe of an 11-year-old trans girl in the process of affirming her identity. The author illustrates a number of concepts connected to gender identity in young children in an amusing, pedagogical manner.

Gender stereotypes in primary school-aged children

According to a study conducted in Québec by the Conseil du statut de la femme (2016), most primary school teachers surveyed fully or somewhat agreed with the following statements:

  • Girls do better in French than boys;
  • The brains of boys and girls do not work in quite the same way;
  • Gender differences are not the result of inequalities between men and women;
  • Schools in Québec are not adapted to the needs and specificity of boys;
  • Boys need more dynamic and active educational methods; and
  • Boys need to move more than girls.

However, these claims are neither based on biological characteristics nor are they scientifically founded. At birth, the brains of boys and girls differ only in reproductive function. Children between 0 and 3 years of age 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).

Since the development of identity takes place in early childhood (for reference, read the page dealing with sexual stereotypes in infants and toddlers) and because an individual’s identity crystallizes at between five and seven years of age (Boyd and Bee, 2015), when children enter primary school, most have already adopted the behaviours expected in children of their sex. Thus, in a study conducted at several primary schools in the Québec City area, “all of the boys had internalized an evaluation model depicting masculinity based on traditional stereotypes. According to these stereotypes, a boy must be sporty, undisciplined, indifferent to academic results and able to defend himself. Boys who refuse to conform to this model are excluded from the group” (Gagnon, 1999, p. 29). The same study further observes that “behaviours perceived as being male raise the self-esteem of most boys and make them popular with their peers, but distance them from academic achievement, locking them into a limiting mould” (p. 161).

As for girls, several studies show that when merely 7 years old, girls would already like to be thinner: at this age, they can already identify a part of their anatomy that they want to improve (SCF, 2018). As soon as they enter primary school, girls are also less confident and underestimate their competencies (BBC, 2018). Thus, we see the phenomenon of stereotype threat appear. Take the example of a class of 11- to 13-year-olds who are preparing to take a test measuring their spatial representation capabilities. If the test is introduced as an exercise in geometry, the boys’ scores are on average better than those of the girls. But if the teacher announces that it is a drawing test, then the girls beat the boys! (Massa et al., 2005). This experiment and many others show just how much girls apprehend geometry exercises. They consciously internalize the prejudice that they are not good at math (Vidal, 2017, p. 19). However, girls of primary school age appear to be more resistant to female gender stereotypes, particularly if they have better grades (Gagnon, 1999), which is consistent with studies that show a correlation between adherence to gender stereotypes and school leaving (Réseau Réussite Montréal, 2018).

Thus, boys and girls seem to adopt behaviours and demonstrate strengths that naturally differ according to sex. But these differences, however, turn out to be the result of differentiated socialization.

Differentiated socialization

Although the family, daycare centre, toys and books for children are the primary agents responsible for the differentiated socialization of girls and boys during early childhood, this process continues at primary school: “so the teachers play a key role in this gendered socialization of pupils by extending what the children have already experienced within their families” (Epiney, 2013, p. 17).

Differentiated socialisation is the process of inculcating in children the behaviours expected of their sex in a manner consistent with the society in which they are growing up. Much of this differentiated socialisation occurs without our knowledge.

It is, therefore, essential for teachers to pay attention to the often unconscious ways in which they act differently towards the boys and girls in their classes. Attention must also be paid to what the pupils say and do: indeed, peers also play a role in this differentiated socialization through their reactions towards children who adopt or transgress against behaviours traditionally associated with their own gender. For instance, boys who demonstrate interest in things associated with girls and women (makeup, reading, dance, arts, etc.) are often excluded by their classmates, particularly the boys. In contrast, unruly boys who are talented in sports or who defy authority will gain the admiration of their friends as a result.

As part of this differentiated socialization taking place at primary school, “children almost exclusively establish relations with their peers of the same sex, a phenomenon that exists in almost every culture in the world (Cairns and Cairns, 1994; Karkness and Super, 1985). Boys play with boys and girls, with girls; each group plays different games and in a different place” (Boyd and Bee, 2015, p. 257). There are, of course, transgressions between boys’ and girls’ groups for some games, but the segregation generally persists throughout primary school and even into adulthood, although it becomes increasingly less rigid over time (Boyd and Bee, 2015). This boy-girl division helps reinforce gender stereotypes and accentuates differentiated socialization.

Mixed-Gender Classes

This being the case, are mixed-gender classes better? Would single-gender classes encourage a gender-free socialization of children? Would this foster the academic success of both girls and boys? Although a number of conservative circles argue in favour of single-gender school environments, international studies conducted in various countries (the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand) clearly show that the academic results of children in single-gender classes are not better than those of children in mixed-gender classes” (Halpern et al., 2011). These studies also show that segregation at school creates an artificial unisex environment that encourages sexist prejudices. In contrast, mixed-gender classes, which encourage co-operation and collaboration, reduce stereotypical attitudes. The mixed-gender school prepares children to take their place in a society where women and men interact in public and private life (Vidal, 2017, p. 25). Therefore, to combat gender stereotypes and promote school perseverance, it is important to maintain mixed-gender classes and give preference to activities that counteract the gender segregation that occurs at school due to gendered socialization.

Sex Education and Early Hypersexualisation

Sex education has been a huge issue in Québec (and elsewhere!) in recent years. The Québec program has a whole section dealing with the deconstruction of sexual stereotypes and hypersexualisation, which stems from the stereotypes imposed on children. But teachers and parents continue to have many questions about what children should and should not be taught about sexuality.

First, as stated by the ministry, sexuality is obviously not limited to genitality and should not be reduced to sexual practices alone; affective and relational considerations are central to the world of sexuality (Ministère de l’Éducation, 2003, p. 9). In this regard, upon entering primary school, “children may experience certain intimate behaviours such as holding hands, standing close to one another, or having strong feelings for a friend. These emotions lead them to wonder and question, even if they do not explicitly talk about them.

Emotions and romantic love develop in stages and evolve as children age. So it is important to discuss emotional and romantic relationships with children, keeping in mind their level of psychosexual development. This means that the concept of romantic love would not be discussed with children before they are 8 to 11 years old, and the idea of sexual attraction would gradually be introduced only once the children are 10 to 11 years old” (SCF, 2018).

Unfortunately, affective and romantic relations are not free of sexual stereotypes. In fact, boys and girls are expected to behave differently when it comes to interpersonal relations. For instance, when talking about a boy who says he has a girlfriend, adults are often heard to say such things as Hey, you go, kid!  You’ve probably also heard people say things like You’re quite a charmer! to a young boy who seems to be popular with several girls at the same time and who says he has more than one girlfriend.  But what do people say to young girls in the same situation? It’s more common to hear comments warning girls about boys or about their own seductive potential (an example that springs to mind is the myth that contends that girls who are attractive risk being sexually assaulted). These spontaneous reactions send messages to children. In other words, the romantic relationship is valued for boys and synonymous with “danger” for girls. With the best of intentions in mind, adults may, through their attitudes, reinforce the image of the “vulnerable” woman and the man as a “predator”. Not really ideal as a way of fostering healthy, equalitarian relationships! (SCF, 2018). In addition, the models often provided to children feature families and hetero-normative couples, in other words, families composed of a father and a mother and couples formed by a man and a woman. In this regard, “the first discussions with children concerning affective and romantic relationships must foster inclusiveness and be non-heterosexist. The earlier children have access to a range of models, the earlier they will develop openness to sexual diversity. A strong adherence to sexual stereotypes can lead to being uncomfortable with anyone who deviates from these stereotypes, and later lead to homophobia or transphobia” (SCF, 2018).

Finally, we see early hypersexualisation in children of primary school age and content that specifically targets them. Girls between the ages of 8 and 13 are increasingly targeted as consumers by the fashion, music, magazine and movie industries; pre-adolescents are one of the largest demographic cohorts since the baby boomers (Bouchard and Bouchard, 2017). The female stereotypes depicted by these media are often presented as being accessible to young girls while in reality, this is not at all the case. The model girls, and boys as well, are encouraged to mirror are highly exaggerated and assign sexualized roles to children that are unsuitable for their psychosexual level.


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