Girl Or Boy?: What Do Babies Think?

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With all the conversation about babies and gender happening this week (check out Sherry Huang’s Goody Blog post in case you haven’t been following the story), we adults have had an opportunity to voice our opinions, but what exactly would a baby be thinking about all this?

I just read a chapter entitled “Patterns of Gender Development,” written by Drs. Carol Lynn Martin and Diane N. Ruble, and published in the 2009 Annual Review of Psychology. This review suggests that babies — even 6-month-olds — are able to distinguish between male and female faces and voices. How can researchers know this? Imagine that you show babies a series of pictures of women, and then put in a picture of a man. Babies will respond as if they have seen something change, indicating that they are beginning to form separate concepts of what a “man” and a “woman” look like.

As babies see and hear more and more people out in the world, they expand the rudimentary categories in their mind.  This process continues rapidly (not just for gender, but for pretty much everything!) through infancy and toddlerhood and beyond. So, for example, Drs. Martin and Ruble suggest that toddlers between 18-24 months of age start to use gender labels (boy/guy/man, girl, lady, woman), and between 24-30 months of age, most kids have a sense of their gender group.

So what does this mean for the ongoing discussion we are all having about babies and gender? Parents have an opportunity to help their children (even starting in infancy) refine how they categorize what they experience in the physical and social world. If you give children opportunities to see that some males have long hair and some females have short hair, they will “update” their conceptions of gender. If they see that some boys like to play with dolls, and some girls like to play with trucks, they can integrate this into their knowledge base. If you want them to not feel constrained by gender stereotypes, you can give them a range of choices in their own daily life (in terms of their clothes, their toys, etc.). And you can have conversations about all these things.

Like anything else, you can lay out how broadly or narrowly you want your children to think about gender. And then, over time, they will, like anything else, make up their own minds.

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