The Formation Of Gender Identities In Young Children

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There is no simple or correct answer in the ever-changing world we live in. These gender categories of male, female, masculine or feminine are fluid and change with time and social surroundings. We develop our own model of these categories and it is ever changing as we grow and mature.

When a child is born it doesn’t know what gender category he or she is. This has to be learned. However we are categorised at birth, a doctor can see which genitalia we are born with male or female and place us into one class or the other.

However simply being born male for instance doesn’t make you male. Some men feel they are women trapped inside a mans body. They can dress as a women act as a women but genetically they are male. So to some extent there is a choice involved.

Turner and his colleagues (Turner et al., 1987) came up with the theory of self-categorisation. This claims that people look at social categories and decide if they are in that category or not. If they are in a certain category that category becomes part of their identity. So as in the example above a man could devide people into categories of men and women but he identifies more with the category of women and considers himself a member of that category.

Children of course are not as complex as adults or born knowing male from female. We are categorised as male or female at birth and due to our parents social and cultural experiences projected towards our choice of gender. So at what age do children start to display the use or concept of gender categories?

Evidence suggests that by the age of two a child’s choice of toys is masculine or feminine. For instance a girl would choose a doll and a boy a toy car. Sometime between the age of two and three they can categorise toys into masculine or feminine and these categories influence their choice of toy.

So by the age of three they understand which toys are for boys and which are for girls. When then do children start to categorise themselves and others into gender categories?

Children between the age of two and three are able to categorise themselves as boys or girls. They also display gender appropriate behaviour, that is traits suitable to masculinity and femininity in a particular culture. This self-categorisation tends to result in a preference for same gender peers.

It seems then that by the age of three children can categorise themselves and others into male or female and objects into masculine or feminine. So how does the model of gender categories that children posses differ from the adult version?

Gender categorisations by children under the age of five tend to have distinct characteristics. They are simplified representations of the typical characteristics associated with a category. These categories are rigid and inflexible with simple in out rules, you are either part of one group or not. They are naively certain about gender. Because of this they make mistakes believing that a girl can become an uncle or a boy an aunt. They can also be fooled by context, if a man dresses as a woman for a fancy dress party. Children can believe that he has changed into a woman.

Research carried out by (BEM 1989) suggests that children’s gender categorisation is less influenced by biological knowledge as they don’t have this knowledge. A group of children under five years old were shown pictures of naked toddlers only half of them could distinguish between boys and girls using biological knowledge (genitalia). The half that could distinguish between boys and girls using biological knowledge were not swayed into changing their choice of gender category when shown the same toddlers in opposite gender cloths or hair styles. However the half without the biological knowledge took their gender cues from clothing and hairstyle.

So early gender categorisation seems to depend on the social and cultural experiences of each individual child.

From the age of five up children learn that gender identity remains the same as they get older. Their gender categorisations become more flexible, adaptive and more reliable. They are actively maintained and reconstructed for the rest of their lives. They learn that there are multiple gender identities; masculinities and femininities as apposed to just masculine or feminine.

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