From a young age, children are exposed to cultural expectations and stereotypes surrounding gender. This can be seen in their choice of toys, play styles, and media preferences, which are often heavily influenced by their gender. As they grow older, children become increasingly aware of these gendered messages and may start to recognize how their gender affects their experiences and opportunities.
For example, they may notice that adults treat girls and boys differently or that certain activities are considered more suitable for one gender over the other. These early experiences can shape children’s understanding of gender and contribute to the development of gender constancy – the understanding that gender is a stable and enduring characteristic.
The relationship between biological sex and social gender identity is a well-established topic in psychology. However, there is also growing interest in how children develop a sense of gender and its associated roles. Developmental psychologists have proposed several theories to help explain the process of gender development, and one of the most significant is known as “Gender Constancy.”
What Is Gender Constancy?
The concept of gender constancy is a theory that proposes that children develop an understanding of their gender over time and eventually recognize that their gender remains the same, even if their physical appearance changes.
This theory was first introduced by American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg in 1966 and has since been a subject of interest for psychologists studying gender development.
Gender constancy is a complex topic that continues to evolve as our understanding of gender and its complexities grows. Gender is a deeply personal and individual experience, and people may have different experiences and understandings of their gender identity. Therefore, it can be challenging to develop a single definition or theory that fully captures the diversity of gender experiences.
What Is Kohlberg’s Theory of Gender Development?
The cognitive-developmental theory of French psychologist Jean Piaget inspires Kohlberg’s theory of gender development. To understand Kohlberg’s theory, you must understand what schema is and its importance in gender development.
A schema is an organized pattern of neural connections in the brain that represent some aspect of the environment or experience of an individual. A cognitive structure allows humans to interpret and process new information. In children, it helps them to make sense of the world around them.
We all have schemas for the different genders we encounter daily: male, female, etc. If you ever wonder why a girl has a doll instead of a truck, it’s because that’s the schema she associates with the gender “girl.”
Similarly, gender schema explains the process that begins with having implicit or explicit attitudes about gender roles. It assumes that children will behave in ways society expects them to based on their biological sex. In contrast, according to Kohlberg, children follow a specific stage-development pattern as they learn their gender.
In a developmental approach to gender, children naturally develop an awareness of their sex from the ages of two to seven years and understand their gender will not change in the future. Kohlberg asserted that once children reach this stage of development, they’ll be motivated by their surroundings and behave following social expectations.
What Are the Stages of Gender Constancy?
According to Kohlberg, there are three stages of gender constancy. Let’s have a look at them.
Stage 1: Gender identity
Gender identity is the first stage when children understand whether they are a boy or a girl and the gender of the people around them. However, at this stage, children aren’t aware that their gender cannot change with time. Generally, this stage completes by the age of 3.
Stage 2: Gender stability
Children understand the concept of gender stability by age 5. At this stage, children will understand that they will be of a particular gender in adulthood–male or female. However, they still lack the understanding that surroundings, choices, or appearances cannot change gender.
Stage 3: Gender consistency
Gender consistency is the third stage that refers to children’s understanding that their gender will not change by appearances, activities, surroundings, and traits. By age 6 or 7, a child understands the permanence of sexual and gender-related characteristics and begins associating with their sex regularly.
Kohlberg argues that a child’s development of gender is primarily cognitive, meaning it’s more about understanding the social world around them. He also suggests that rewards will not make a child want to act in ways that are conventionally appropriate for their sex.
Instead, their sense of being male or female develops as a function of their cognitive development. And the stages of their gender identity development match Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory.
In various research studies, it has been suggested that gender development is based chiefly on observing same-sex models. Boys and girls learn to be men and women by watching their fathers and mother, respectively. In contrast, Kohlberg’s theory claimed that children only think of gender as a part of them, not something they can change.
Studies on Gender Constancy
So, in 1975, Slaby and Frey studied whether same-sex models influenced children; they examined how gender constancy affected those children’s attention. They set up a series of 14 counter questions for 52 children aged 2 to 5. Questions asked for gender identity were like:
- Do you think she’s a girl or a boy? (showing girl/boy doll)
- Are you going to be a girl or a boy?
Questions asked for gender stability were like below:
- As a baby, did you enjoy playing with dolls or trucks?
- When you were a baby, were you a girl or a boy?
- Do you want to be a mother or father when you grow up?
At last, questions asked for gender consistency were like this:
- If you dressed as a girl, would you be seen as a girl or as a boy?
- Do you think you could have become a boy? (asked to girls)
- Do you think you could have become a girl? (asked to boys)
Based on this, low gender constancy-ranked children who responded incorrectly to the questions fall under the gender stability or gender labeling/identity stage and are classified as having high gender constancy.
In a follow-up study several weeks later, Slaby and Frey showed the kids a short film of a man and a woman doing activities in parallel. The goal was to determine how much time each kid spent staring at each character.
What they found was quite interesting. They found that children with higher levels of gender constancy spent more time watching same-sex models and less time around opposite-sex models than young children with less gender constancy.
Different Gender Constancy Theories
Although Kohlberg’s theory is one of the most popular regarding the gender development of children, several studies have not aligned with it.
For example, a study of children’s toy preferences found that they prefer to play with toys traditionally associated with their gender long before they have attained gender constancy.
Another study stated that with greater awareness of gender constancy, children start to recognize that the confining nature of their physical and social environment does not make them a different gender.
Problems Associated with Gender Constancy
Most children develop a gender identity consistent with their biological sex, but sometimes their gender identity becomes inconsistent. About one in 20,000 males and one in 50,000 females have the condition known as gender confusion, transsexualism, or gender identity disorder.
Some children feel they were born into the wrong body and begin to show signs of gender confusion around the age of two. They prefer playmates of the opposite sex, while most children prefer to spend time in their own sex’s company. Transsexual boys might play with dolls, and girls with gender identity disorders prefer sports.
It’s important to remember that many children (emotionally healthy and those with gender identity disorder) imagine themselves as members of the opposite sex. However, children with gender identity disorder can go through significant problems with functioning, such as depression and anxiety. Therefore, understand if your child behaves unevenly regarding gender recognition and consult a psychologist to diagnose it at the right time.
Although gender identity development is still being researched today, the original theory proposed by Kohlberg has been partially supported. As long as we don’t understand the development of gender identity in children, we can’t correctly understand this phenomenon. Only through continued and sustained effort can we understand gender identity development.