When my daughter Rachel was 4, she decided she would wear only dresses to preschool. Before long, her favorite activity became polishing her nails and applying pretend lipstick. As a proud feminist, I was flabbergasted. Where, I wondered, was this behavior coming from?
As it turns out, Rachel was acting on a host of messages -- some subtle, some not so subtle -- that she'd been receiving since birth. "Research shows that infants can tell the difference between males and females as early as their first year," says Elaine Blakemore, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Indiana University Purdue University, in Fort Wayne. What's more, they begin forming gender stereotypes almost as soon as they know they are boys or girls.
Gary Levy, Ph.D., director of the Infant Development Center at the University of Wyoming, in Laramie, studied 10-month-olds to see if they could comprehend gender-related information. "We showed the babies videos of certain objects paired with either a male or a female face," he says. "The children became accustomed to seeing certain objects with a man's face and others with a woman's face, and they recognized when we violated this pattern."
It's not until kids are 3 or 4, however, that they really begin to work out for themselves what it means to be a boy or a girl. As they gradually test their theories through observation and imitation, many preschoolers begin adopting stereotypical behaviors. Girls, for example, may spend most of their time in the dress-up or kitchen corner of their preschool classroom. Little boys may engage in activities that make them feel powerful, such as constructing block towers and then knocking them down with a toy truck.
Although many progressive parents, like me, are shocked to see their children conforming to such narrowly defined gender play roles, we may inadvertently perpetuate those stereotypes. "Adults aren't aware of how much they reinforce stereotyping by complimenting boys and girls in stereotypical ways -- commenting on how pretty a little girl looks in her dress, for example," says Diane Ruble, Ph.D., director of the Child Studies Program at New York University, in New York City. "And even the most enlightened fathers often become uncomfortable when they see their sons playing with dolls or exhibiting other traditional feminine behavior. One 3-year-old boy I know liked wearing his hair in a ponytail. But one day, when his mom asked if he wanted her to fix his hair in a ponytail, he replied, 'No -- Daddy would be mad!'"
Preschoolers also pick up gender clues from older siblings, teachers, and, perhaps most insidiously, the media. "The action figures for boys advertised on TV and seen in TV shows almost invariably have big muscles and are depicted as powerful and active," says Diane Levin, Ph.D., a professor of education at Wheelock College, in Boston, and author of Remote Control Childhood? Combating the Hazards of Media Culture (NAEYC, 1998). "The dolls marketed to girls are pretty, sweet, and sexy. Preschoolers are drawn to these extremes."
Michelle Graves, a consultant with High/Scope, an educational-research foundation in Ypsilanti, Michigan, witnessed such behavior firsthand during classroom observation. After playing in a housekeeping area, boys would deny having done so, when asked.
According to some experts, it's not unusual for preschool girls to go through a pink and frilly phase and for preschool boys to spend their days imitating superheroes. In this culture, these phases pass. Nevertheless, it's important for parents to guide their preschoolers' thinking to make sure that they don't end up with lasting gender ideas based on stereotypes. Here are a few suggestions.