Early Childhood Education

Gender and Gender Stereotyping

 

Background

Gender issues in U.S. early childhood education began to be addressed in the early 1970s largely in concert with the rise of the third phase of the Women’s Movement. At that time, the focus was on freeing girls from gender stereotyping perceived as limiting their physical, cognitive, and social/emotional development.

Early research carefully differentiated gender identity—that is, the self-awareness and acceptance of being male or female—from gender roles—that is, the acceptance and adoption of socially defined behaviors and attitudes associated with being male or female. We now know that gender identity develops very early. By age 2 children know if they are a girl or a boy. Gender roles also begin to develop very early. Most children enter preschool with well-defined knowledge of whether they are a girl or a boy, and also which toys and play activities are considered suitable for their sex.

Studies conducted in the 1970s and 1980s pointed to the ways that nature and nurture intersect to create very different socialization experiences for girls and boys. Some studies documented the different reactions and behaviors of parents based on the sex of their child. In one study (Fagot, 1978), parents were shown an infant dressed first in girl’s clothing and then in boy’s clothing and their initial reactions were recorded. The “girl” baby was described as tiny, delicate, precious. The “boy” baby was a bruiser, big, a future football player. In fact, there was only one infant involved in this study, alternately dressed in different clothing. Another study (Bridges, 1993) analyzed baby congratulation cards to document the role that societal expectations play in gender stereotyping from the moment of birth (or before). Greeting cards to welcome the birth of a child conveyed their messages through color-coding—pink for girls, blue for boys; boy cards showed boys (usually older than an infant) engaged with balls, sports equipment, vehicles and other objects suggesting action. Illustrations on girl cards typically showed girls immobile in cribs or baskets surrounded by rattles, flowers, and mobiles. The written messages were as stereotyped as the illustrations. Boys could be anything, girls were forever small, precious, little girls, and inactive. Unfortunately, the same study could have been conducted in the twenty-first century with very similar results.

Researchers in the 1970s also examined the effects of gender differentiated teacher interactions with girls and boys, and the role that toy preferences play in the development of cognitive, physical, and social/emotional skills. Some wrote about the importance of appropriate teacher intervention to ensure that girls and boys engage with variety of toys and activities to help them develop a broad range of skills. Others demonstrated the teacher’s crucial role in helping girls move beyond typical play patterns to enter spaces such as the block area that had been almost exclusively the realm of boys. Also in the 1970s, the Non-Sexist Child Development Project was turning research into practice by providing staff development, parent workshops, and curriculum to help the adults who work with children and to free children, both girls and boys, from the limits imposed by rigid sex-role expectations (Sprung, 1975).

The purpose of the large body of early gender identity and gender-role literature was to first document the ramifications of stereotyped play in terms of children’s development, and then help teachers and parents understand how the perpetuation of rigid roles limited the potential development of both girls and boys. In a review of the research on the gender divided learning attributes (Greenberg, 1985), honed in the home and preschool, that girls and boys bring with them as they enter kindergarten, there were several findings of significance. For girls these include verbal, small motor acuity, nurturance, social ability, and impulse control; for boys the attributes include spatial ability, large motor skills, inventiveness, self-worth. These attributes follow closely the sex differences described by Eleanor Maccoby and Carol Jacklin in their 1974 landmark book The Psychology of Sex Differences.

 

Awareness Made a Difference

The research studies, the work with teachers and parents, research reports in professional journals, articles in the popular press, and the passage in 1972 of Title IX (the federal legislation barring sex discrimination in programs receiving Federal funding) all converged to bring about changes in early childhood education regarding gender roles and gender stereotyping. For the most part, attention focused on freeing girls from the limits of sex-role stereotyping. Parents were encouraged to dress girls in pants that allowed them to run and climb freely and to get dirty with abandon instead of worrying about messing their dresses or scraping their knees. Teachers made a concerted effort to enlarge the scope of girl’s activities, encouraging block building and other large motor games that built physical strength. Researchers helped teachers understand the ways in which their unconscious interactions with girls and boys helped to perpetuate sex-roles. Classroom videotapes and observations documented that teachers called on boys more often than girls, praised boys’ strengths and accomplishments, and complimented girls on their appearance and clothes.

Other factors highlighted the damaging effects of sex-role stereotyping on girls. Books and articles urged parents to encourage their daughters to break out of sex- typed play. Sexist language became an issue, and guidelines for gender neutral terms were issued by most educational publishers, for example, fireman became firefighter, repair man became repair person, the generic he was avoided by using the plural they or, if necessary, he and she. Pressure from activists groups of parents and educators convinced toy manufacturers to reduce stereotyping in their packaging. As a result, toy boxes began to show both boys and girls, and girls were no longer relegated to the background watching the boy use the toy.

In the movement to free girls from sex-role stereotyping, some early childhood educators and parents also looked at how rigid roles limited boys’ potential. Efforts were made to help boys develop and express a full range of emotions and their nurturing side. The Non-Sexist Child Development Project, a national effort to reduce sex-role stereotyping beginning in early childhood, worked with teachers and parents to free both boys and girls from the limitations imposed by rigid role divisions. “Free to Be You and Me,” books, records, and videotapes gave teachers and parents enjoyable tools to work with. Publishers of children’s trade books came out with many books that showed boys and girls and men and women in a variety of nonstereotyped roles. The more open view of what children could be was apparent at the annual conferences of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The exhibit hall displayed early childhood materials and toys that were nonsexist, multicultural, and even began to be inclusive of children with disabilities.

 

Backsliding

As in all movements, a period of real progress is followed by a plateau or backsliding, and this happened in the efforts to free children from gender-stereotyped roles. Starting in the mid-1980s and into the 1990s war toys and cartoon-type action figures geared to boys became resurgent and even LEGO became color-coded, with pink and lavender sets for girls and primary color sets for boys. Violence in society and depicted in television shows, in cartoons, and in movies seemed ubiquitous. Critics put forth that boys were being feminized and more conservative attitudes began to emerge. Of course, not all gains were lost, and girls continued to close the gap in areas where they had not been expected to achieve, for example, sports, mathematics and science. For boys, however, the backsliding led to gender problems that urgently needed to be addressed.

 

Emerging Gender Issues

Beginning in the late 1990s books such as Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Masculinity (Pollack, 1998); Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys (Kindlon and Thompson, 1999); and Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity (Ferguson, 2000) began to appear that illuminated concerns about boy’s social/emotional development and school performance. The research showed that on both levels boys were not faring well. Boys lag behind girls in reading and writing; are more likely to be referred to a school psychologist; are more likely to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; represent 70 percent of students with learning disabilities and 80 percent of those with social/emotional disturbances; represent 70 percent of school suspensions, particularly minority males in urban schools; and commit 85 percent of the school violence and comprise the majority of victims of that violence.

Research shows that boys are especially vulnerable during their first ten years with respect to social/emotional development and academic achievement, particularly in the area of literacy. Many of the statistics cited above have been prevalent in schools for many years, but until recently little attention was paid. Teachers and parents alike seemed to assume that boys were okay.

The academic and social well-being of boys, however, is becoming a key gender issue. The literature has just begun to examine the difficulty schools face in adequately supporting the developmental needs of many boys. Since boys’ problems emerge in the primary grades, it is imperative that early childhood educators become aware of the issues and develop strategies to address them. This does not mean that attention should turn away from girls; it means that educators must look at gender issues in the preschool years in terms of all children.

Addressing teasing and bullying behavior in the early childhood years became another emerging issue in the 1990s, with gender-related implications. Educational Equity Concepts and the Wellesley College Centers for Research on Women conducted a study in grades K-3 in New York City and Framingham, Massachusetts, to determine the extent and the nature of this behavior. Methods included classroom observations throughout the school day, one-on-one interviews with children, and focus groups with teachers and parents. Findings, which agreed with those of other researchers, showed that boys initiated incidents three times as often as girls, that girls and boys were equal recipients, and that adults did not intervene in over 70 percent of observed incidents. Children were well aware of the fact that teachers usually did nothing to stop the teasing. In interviews they remarked, “Boys usually chase girls because that’s what boys do—boys chase” “Teachers don’t do anything.” “Kids won’t stop until the teacher makes them.” The gender message in children’s reactions is subtle. If adults don’t intervene, boys learn that it’s okay to behave in ways that upset others, and girls learn that they have to put up with this behavior and usually won’t be helped by adults.

Based on a growing body of research on the harmful effects of teasing and bullying, and the fact that it is a pervasive problem in schools nationally and internationally, many programs have been developed to address the need for school wide intervention. At the early childhood level, the Quit it! Model, Don’t Laugh at Me, the Bullying Prevention Model, and the Second Step Model all take a school-wide approach that involves all the adults who work with children (see Web sites).

 

Conclusion

Understanding the role of gender in early childhood education has come a long way—and there is an even longer road ahead. The learning gap for girls has significantly narrowed and their options and opportunities, despite some backsliding, have been greatly enhanced. Gender issues regarding the development of young boys need to be addressed much more directly than in the past, and attention must be paid in preschool.

The early childhood classroom is the place where all the building blocks for later learning are put in place, which presents a challenge and opportunity for curriculum and a learning environment that addresses the individual needs of boys and girls and is free from teasing and bullying behavior.

To meet the challenge, more attention needs to be paid to gender issues in teacher education, both at the preservice and inservice level. Research on gender issues in child development needs to be continuous, and teachers need be exposed to research findings and practical applications. At the present time, there is a push to make early childhood education more academic as a way to make children more “ready” for primary school. If their early childhood teachers create a learning community that meets the physical, cognitive, and social/emotional needs of each child and frees him or her from the limits of gender stereotyping, children will truly be “ready” for the challenges ahead.

Further Readings: Bridges, S. B. (1993). Pink or blue: Gender stereotyped perceptions of infants as conveyed by birth congratulations cards. Psychology of Women Quarterly 17, 193-205; Fagot, B. (1978). The influence of sex of child on parental reactions to toddler children. Child Development 49, 459-465; Greenberg, S. (1985). Educational equity in early childhood environments. In S. Klein, ed., Handbook for achieving sex equity through education. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press; Honig, A. (1983). Research in review: Sex role socialization in young children. Young Children. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children; Koch, J., and B. Irby, eds. (2002). Defining and redefining gender equity in education. Greenwich, CT: Infoage Publishing; Maccoby, E. Eleanor and C. Jacklin (1974). The psychology of sex differences. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; Sprung, B. (1975). Non-sexist education for young children: A practical guide. New York: Citation Press (Scholastic).

Web Sites: Bullying Prevention Program: www.wcwonline.org/bullying; Operation Respect: Don’t Laugh at Me, info@operation respect.org; Quit it! School-Wide Model, www.edequity.org; Second Step: Cfc.org/program.

Barbara Sprung