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Kids are born biased. It’s natural to put things, and people, into categories. Even very young children sort people based on race and sex, and this sorting can affect their judgments about gender equity.
For example, I asked children whether it is acceptable to give boys and girls in a class different and unequal rewards (e.g. a robotics kit for each of the boys and a bottle of nail polish for the girls). More than half of the 6 and 8 year-old children judged the unequal distributions acceptable - as long as they were consistent with gender norms. Interestingly, this pattern also held when girls received the more expensive gift (1).
The research, which was recently replicated (2), showed that children are more strongly influenced by gender norms than adults - who judged these distributions to be unfair.
It doesn’t appear that children get this idea directly from grown-ups. In fact, parents only have limited control over their children’s development of inflexible thinking about gender. Even parents who make every effort to promote gender equity cannot avoid a world that distinguishes clothing for boys and girls, provides them with different bathrooms, offers different after-school activities like scouts, advertises different toys to them, and only has male presidents.
Children recognize that these signals mean that gender is an important category. Young children overextend the category, and apply it in ways that adults do not.
However, research is clear that some environments promote gender norms more than others, indicating that gender bias in children is not inevitable.
In a study with Jung Min Kim and Elliot Turiel, we found cultural differences in children’s judgments about whether it acceptable to defy a gender norm (3). Children in South Korea, a more traditional culture in regard to gender, judged gender-norm violations more harshly than children in the US. Research by Hillard and Liben (4) showed experimentally that more emphasis placed on gender in a classroom (e.g. telling kids to make a “boys line” and a “girls line”) led to more inflexible attitudes about gender.
Diversity in the environment helps, because children know that defying strict gender norms can lead to teasing in some settings but not others. In a recent study, I asked children ages 5-9 to judge whether a hypothetical child should follow their preference and defy a gender norm in private and then in public (5). For example, in one scenario I asked children whether a boy should ride a pink bike (his favorite) in his back yard and whether he should ride it in the school parade. Most children endorsed the boy’s choice of a pink bike, but fewer did so when the boy would be in public. One prominent reason they gave was a concern with teasing.
The fact that children endorsed personal choice in private, even when the choice was to defy gender norms, provides a seed of hope that children can be flexible about gender norms. Even the study where children accepted unequal distributions showed that children were not illogical or unaware of inequality. Instead they were misinformed. They assumed that all the children in the class would like the gifts they received – they assumed that gender norms are accurate. And this assumption predicted judgments that the distributions were fair.
When children are aware of the diversity of preferences that exist among people of all genders, they prioritize freedom of choice and fairness (6), (7), (8).
A clear message that gender is not the best way to predict someone’s preferences, abilities, or potential can help children develop more flexible thinking. This message must come from the world children observe. Children see right through empty phrases that suggest girls can be anything when they see otherwise in the world around them.
Children form their own judgments of the world. A world where a woman is president provides evidence that children can use to construct their view of what women want, what they can do, and what is fair.
(1) Conry-Murray, C. (2015). Boys get the math games and girls get the reading games: Children’s reasoning about distributive justice and gender. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 61, 319-344.
(2) Conry-Murray, C. (2016, June). Children reasoning about distributive justice: The impact of gender norms. Paper presented at the Jean Piaget Society meeting in Chicago, Il.
(3) Conry-Murray, C., Kim, J.M., & Turiel, E. (2015). Judgments of gender norm violations in children from the United States and Korea. Cognitive Development, 35, 122-136.
(4) Hillard, L., & Liben, L. (2010). Differing levels of gender salience in preschool classrooms: Effects on children’s gender attitudes and intergroup bias. Child Development, 81, 1787-1798.
(5) Conry-Murray, C. (2013). Children’s reasoning about gender-atypical preferences in different settings. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 115, 210-217.
(6) Conry-Murray, C. & Turiel, E. (2012). Jimmy’s baby doll and Jenny’s truck: Young children’s reasoning about gender norms. Child Development, 83, 146-158.
(7) Conry-Murray, C. (in press). Children’s distributive justice: The role of gender norms in different settings. European Journal Of Developmental Psychology.
(8) Conry-Murray, C. (2016) The development of social justice: The role of reasoning. Human Development, 59, 273-280.
Clare Conry-Murray, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, specializing in social and moral development. Follow her on Twitter at @cconrymurray.
This post originally appeared as a guest post on the Learning Scientists Blog. Follow the Learning Scientists on Twitter at @AceThatTest.