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How does one’s gender impact behavior and interactions with others? Research has shown that men and women interact differently in social settings and society has ideas for what is appropriate male and female behavior.

Gender Differences in Socialization

It has been discovered that children exhibit different tendencies toward socialization purely based on their gender. There is debate over how much these differences arise from biology and how much come from being taught how to act, but most agree there is some mixture of both. Before we get into how gender roles are learned, we are going to mention some observed differences in male and female interactions.

Researcher Eleanor Maccoby evaluated the typical patterns of socialization of children. Her results showed that girls tend to choose same-sex partners by age 3 and continue this preference into elementary school. They tend to favor one-on-one interaction, as opposed to boys, who lean toward large group relationships based on shared interests.

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Girls are more likely to form tight bonds, share secrets and wait their turn to speak. While boys are more likely to threaten, boast, or call each other names and display an importance of hierarchy in groups.When children grow up, many of these tendencies in socialization continue. Women tend to build closer bonds overall, with more affectionate language and lengthy conversations. Men, on the other hand, tend to spend time with friends during activities or shared professions.

While women tend to seek out friends in times of struggle or weakness, men are less likely to share weaknesses or emotional concerns with their friends. Both genders tend to choose friends on the basis of proximity, acceptance, communication, and mutual interests.

Learned Gender Stereotyping

As mentioned earlier, children can be taught how to behave in ways that are considered appropriate for their gender. Gender schema theory states that children learn about gender roles and cultural expectations from their surroundings.

There are three main sources within a child’s surroundings that shape his or her perspectives on gender. These include: parents, teachers, media and culture.1. Parents have a huge impact on a child’s understanding of his or her gender. The parents’ own thoughts on what is expected from men and women become the foundation for the child’s perspective. They can influence children through their instruction and their modeling.First, we have the way they instruct and guide their children.

Parents will make statements to children in order to guide them toward what they believe is gender-appropriate behavior. For example, if a boy is upset and crying, some fathers may tell their sons, ‘Don’t cry. Boys don’t cry.’ If a boy is playing with his sister’s doll, his father may tell him to stop and tell him to go get his car toys.

Second, we have the way the parents model behavior, or how they act out their gender in front of their children. Perhaps a father works, comes home in the evening, and is served dinner. The daughter grows up watching her mother stay at home, prepare meals and do household chores, so she believes this is the appropriate role for women. Chances are she will grow up acting similarly when she is a wife one day.2. Teachers are also shown to be responsible for guiding children and adolescents into particular gender roles. Research reveals a great deal of evidence that teachers can treat boys and girls differently in the classroom.

It has also been found that some teachers encouraged and complimented girls to be calm, neat, and quiet, whereas boys were encouraged to think independently and speak up. Since the classroom can be seen or experienced by children as a microcosm for society, they may expect the same kind of behavior from males and females as they age.3. Media and culture tend to promote gender roles as well.

Have you seen the movie Meet the Parents? It opens up with Ben Stiller in a hospital room, drawing blood from a patient. Afterward the patient thanks him, assuming that since he is a man, he must be the doctor. He says, ‘You’ve got a great touch, Doc.’ Stiller replies, ‘Thank you. And actually, I’m a nurse. The doctor will be in shortly.

‘ Many of us who watched this scene also thought that Stiller was the doctor, based on our own learning that doctors are male, and nurses are female. Later in the movie, Stiller gets mocked for being a nurse when he stands next to a doctor.

Kohlberg’s Cognitive Developmental Theory

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg was a pioneering theorist in the idea that children learn how to understand gender. His idea was known as Kohlberg’s cognitive developmental theory.

There were three stages to his theory: basic gender identity, gender stability, and gender consistency.Here we have Lucy to illustrate those three stages. Let’s go with her as she develops through childhood and learns about gender.

Lucy is 3 years old right now. She realizes she is a female, but she doesn’t yet realize that this is a constant trait. She is therefore in the basic gender identity phase. A year passes, and Lucy is beginning to recognize that she will always be a girl, even when she grows up.

She has now reached gender stability.Fast forward a couple years, and Lucy is now 6 years old. She is continuing to see just how continuous gender really is. She knows that even if the boys in her school dress up in girl clothes, they are still, and will always remain, boys. Therefore, Lucy has now reached the gender consistency stage.

This is the time when children become much more aware of their self-concept, what that means and how to act, and they start behaving in ways that are consistent with it.In 1977, William Damon examined Kohlberg’s theory by running an experiment with 4- to 9-year-olds. He gave them all a story about a boy named George who would not stop playing with dolls, even though his parents said he should play with other toys, since dolls were for girls. The children were then asked questions to see how they viewed gender role stereotypes. Some of the questions presented to the children include: ‘Why do people tell George not to play with dolls? Is there a rule that boys shouldn’t play with dolls? What should George do? And, what if George wanted to wear a dress? Can he do that?’Most of the answers of the 4-year-old children went like this…

‘It’s okay for boys to play with dolls because they want to. George can wear a dress to school if he wants to.’Children who were 6 and 7, however, had very different responses. Many of them said things like, ‘George should play with things boys play with, like trucks or GI Joes. Even if George wants to play with dolls, he shouldn’t because he will get teased or be disliked.

‘ It was clear that those children who had reached the gender consistency stage had started learning from their surroundings what actions are appropriate for boys and girls.

Lesson Summary

To review, there have been noticeable differences in the socialization of males and females. It has also been discovered that children learn what is expected from their gender and how to behave in accordance with it. This is called gender schema theory. Lawrence Kohlberg did a great deal of research on this phenomenon and came up with three stages that children go through in their understanding of gender: basic gender identity, gender stability, and gender consistency. William Damon supported Kohlberg’s point that during the stage of gender consistency, children display what they have learned about gender roles.

Learning Outcomes

Upon completing this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Describe gender schema theory
  • Identify three groups that influence a child’s perspective on gender
  • Explain Kohlberg’s cognitive development theory
  • Summarize William Damon’s research supporting Kohlberg’s theory

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