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How Gender Develops in Childhood

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There is a difference between the terms sex and gender. Sex refers to biological differences such as chromosomes, hormones and internal and external sex organs, whereas gender is the way in which males and females behave in society, displaying what are considered as masculine or feminine traits. These traits are often stereotypes about what constitutes being a male or female in society (Unger, 1979). There are a number of ways in which children develop gender and an understanding at a young age that they are a boy or a girl. The development may occur through social learning theory, (SLT, Bandura, 1977) or through cognitive schema theory (Martin and Halverson, 1981). Children tend to grow up understanding they are a boy or girl and this knowledge becomes a part of their self-concept. The following essay will consider the ways in which gender develops in childhood and how stereotypical perspectives of gender are perpetuated.

The Biological Approach to Gender

A powerful argument for the biological influence on gender can be made when evaluating the study of David Reimer (Money, 1975). Money worked with children born with genitalia that was not clearly defined as either male or female, and, in his role as a doctor, he believed that gender could be reassigned. It was argued by Money that children are born gender neutral and their gender identity develops as a consequence of behavioural interventions and SLT as proposed by Bandura (1977).

David Reimer was one of a pair of male monozygotic twins whose penis was burnt off during an operation for circumcision. The penis could not be repaired and at 7 months it was decided by doctors and his parents that a functional vagina could be constructed and David should be raised as a girl, Brenda. Money reported originally that the gender reassignment had been a success and Brenda as a child was feminine, liked wearing dresses and playing with dolls. Although Brenda also had tomboyish characteristics it was suggested that this was due to the games played with her twin brother.

However, despite Money’s claims that nature could be overcome by nurture and gender was not biologically determined it was later reported that Brenda had been desperately unhappy as a female child and at 14 years she became male again (Diamond and Sigmundson, 1997). It was argued by Money that the study was reliable because David’s twin brother acted as a control as the twins shared the same genes and environment which meant their behaviours could be classified as being either nature or nurture. The findings of the study were biased and based on the subjective interpretations made by Money, perhaps to prove the veracity of his theory regarding gender reassignment. The study was a unique case study and ethically could not be replicated to investigate whether other children, perhaps younger than David, could adapt to gender reassignment. There have been cases have reported successful adaptation such as Daphne Went, who was born with the condition testicular feminising syndrome (TFS). This means that although the individual is biologically male they have external female genitalia. Daphne was happy as a female, unlike David Reimer, who in adulthood committed suicide (Goldwyn, 1979)

Another supporting argument for the biological differences between males and females was found using neuroimaging techniques and electroencephalogram (EEG). It has been shown, for example, that males tend to use the left hemisphere of the brain more than their right hemisphere, whereas females are less lateralised and this may have an effect on gender. The right hemisphere of the brain is involved in aspects of language and it has been found that females tend to use both hemispheres more equally than males (Koles, Lind and Flor-Henry, 2010).

Is Gender Socially Constructed?

There is a strong argument that gender is a socially constructed concept. This means that labels such as gender are meaningless as there is no scientific foundation for such labels. Nevertheless, such labels become entrenched in everyday language and knowledge with only a few people questioning such terms (Gergen, 2009). Gergen argues that gender can be classified in various forms in addition to the male/female dichotomous representation. Diamond and Butterworth (2008) similarly propose that gender should be a fluid concept that allows individuals who do not see themselves as fitting into either a male or female heterosexual category, to define themselves as lesbian, bisexual or transsexual.

The Role of Play in Gender Development

Children typically become aware of their gender identity and that they are either a boy or a girl at a very young age. When gender awareness develops, children tend to participate consistently in what society perceives as being gender appropriate behaviours. Kohlberg, (1966, p.89) proposes that by the age of 3-years a child has a cognitive representation of the relationship between behaviour and gender, for example, ‘I am a boy, therefore I want to do boy things, therefore the opportunity to do boy things (and to gain approval for doing them) is rewarding’. However, a criticism of Kohlberg’s theory is that children are exposed to many influences before the age of 3-years that have a fundamental role in the formation of gender identity. Martin and Halverson (1981) propose that young children develop a gender schema (a set of beliefs or expectations) about the self which includes roles for males and roles for females, which they observe in everyday life, thus they remember gender specific behaviours and forget or ignore information about opposite-gender behaviours. Martin and Halverson’s model explains how gender stereotypes develop and are resistant to change for most children as they become older.

Parents, siblings and peers reinforce gender stereotypes from birth and therefore it could be argued that gender-related behaviours develop because they are encouraged by other people who are close to the child. Female infants typically have pink clothes and nurseries, while boys often have blue clothes and nurseries. It is suggested by Bandura (1977) that children learn behaviours through the observation and imitation of others and in particular the behaviours of same-sex others (such as mothers or sisters). Behaviours are further reinforced if they are rewarded or praised, for example, behaviours that are perceived as being gender appropriate. If behaviour is perceived as being gender inappropriate this tends to be discouraged (Fagot, 1978). In a study undertaken by Fagot (1985) the notion of same sex-peers influencing behaviour was observed with a group of 21-25 month old boys and girls. Behaviours of the children were classified as male, female or neutral and the reactions of the teachers and children to the behaviours were recorded. It was found that the boys gave positive responses when other boys engaged in male activities and the girls responded positively to the other girls rather than boys. The nursery school teachers could influence the girls to alter their behaviours, from physical activities to quieter activities. Neither the girls nor the teachers could influence the boys to change their behaviour, and they continued with physical activities, tending not to take any notice of the teachers. The boys did not respond to the teacher’s requests even when the quieter activities were positively reinforced, which does not support SLT, although the boys themselves had a greater effect in changing other boy’s behaviours.

There have been a large number of studies which have found that children play with toys that are gender-specific (Bussey and Bandura, 1999). A study conducted by Fagot (1978) asked parents to rate the play of their children aged between 20- and 24-months in their own homes. It was found that parents rated the most appropriate behaviours for girls as playing with dolls, dancing and dressing up. For boys the more appropriate behaviour was physical activities such as rough and tumble play, playing with blocks and manipulating objects. It was also found that girls were not encouraged to undertake tasks that involved manipulating objects while the boys were discouraged from playing with dolls (Fagot, 1978). The study demonstrates that parents have different approaches towards their children and gender specific play.

Using pictures of toys, Serbin, Poulin-Dubois, Colburne, Sen and Eichstedt (2001) found that children of 12-, 18- and 24-months preferred stereotypically gender specific toys such as boys preferred trucks and girls preferred dolls. Wong and Hines (2015) undertook a study with boys and girls at two different ages; firstly at 20-40 months and then at 26-47 months. The study used two stereotypical gender-specific toys (a train and a doll) and colour coded a-typical toys in either pink or blue. The findings were predictable as the girls played with the doll and the boys played with the train. However, for the colour-coded a-typical toys the results showed that children were strongly influenced by the colour (for example, the boys avoided playing with anything coded pink). The authors conclude that colour coding toys should be avoided as it may allow all children to develop different skills by playing with different types of stereotypical gender-specific toys, particularly if the colour was more neutral.

Miller (1987) reports that stereotypical gender specific toys have an effect on cognitive and social development of boys and girls, and that it is difficult to find similarities in either the toys or the play of boys and girls. This perspective is supported by a study undertaken by Cherney, Kelly-Vance, Glover, Ruane and Ryalls (2003). The study investigated how stereotypical gender specific toys influenced cognitive development on children aged 18-47 months. The children were observed in a playroom for complex play activities. According to Cherney et al. play is an appropriate way to assess children’s cognitive development, for example the change to symbolic play from exploratory play. Such changes may also help identify children at risk from developmental delay. However, it is reported that very young children (18-months) show different abilities depending on the toys they are playing with. The findings of this study are relevant because children are assessed for their cognitive development at an early age and therefore may not show their potential if given atypical toys that are not gender specific. The findings showed a larger effect for girls in comparison to boys, in that a higher degree of complexity of play was shown when the girls played with stereotypical girl’s toys such as a kitchen and dolls. Thus a selection of toys need to be used when assessing children in formal standardised test situations. However, the study does not mention cultural differences in play and whether the findings would apply to different cultures and ethnic groups.


The evidence presented indicates that both nature, nurture and the wider society perpetuate and emphasise gender stereotypes in childhood. The differences between males and female involve biological differences and in Money’s (1975) longitudinal study of David Reimer showed that nature was dominant over nurture (Diamond and Sigmundson, 1997). This appears to support the idea that gender is a socially constructed concept that identifies two groups (Gergen, 2009) although it is argued that there are more facets to gender than the dominant male/female dichotomy (Diamond and Butterworth, 2008)

Gender is learnt from an early age and SLT (Bandura, 1977) has a role in determining gender with parents reinforcing what society considers appropriate behaviour for boys and girls (Fagot, 1978) Children develop a mental framework or schema of behaviours that are appropriate for either male or female children. The schema appears to be reflected very strongly in the way children play and the type of toys they play with from an early age. Toys can be classified as being stereotypical for either boys or girls and this is particularly the case if toys are coloured pink or blue (Wong and Hines, 2015). The problem with gender specific toys is that they result in gender stereotypical behaviours, roles and activities (Cherney et al. 2003). A further problem is that because children show a strong preference for stereotypical gender-related toys, if such toys are not used in formal standardised tests, the child’s full ability may be incorrectly recorded (Cherney et al. 2003). One omission from many studies is the play of children from different cultures and ethnic groups and how their play affects gender stereotypes. This would appear to be very relevant in contemporary society although this does not appear to be mentioned in the Wong and Hines (2015) study.


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Serbin, L.A., Poulin-Dubois, D., Colburne, K.A., Sen, M.G. and Eichstedt, J.A. (2001). Gender stereotyping in infancy: visual preferences for and knowledge of gender stereotyped toys in the second year. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 25(1), pp.7-15.

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Wong, W. and Hines, M. (2015). Effects of gender color-coding on toddlers’ gender-typical toy play. Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 44(5), 1233-1242


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