Why it's not unusual for preschoolers to obsess over gender differences

Despite our best efforts, preschoolers may fixate on gender norms and categories, and tend to divide their world into "boy stuff" versus "girl stuff."

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Sonja Weaver’s elder son used to love putting on his ballet leotard or Elsa costume and dancing around the living room. But as he approached his fourth birthday, the sparkly dresses were staying in the costume box. “He dropped princesses like a hot potato,” recalls Weaver. “He hasn’t quite said he thinks dresses are for girls, but I see it in his actions.”

Like many parents in her progressive-leaning circle in Victoria, Weaver and her husband try to avoid choosing gendered clothing, toys and activities for their two sons. They stocked their costume trunk with both princess tutus and superhero capes. But despite their best efforts, their preschooler started forming strong ideas about the differences between boys and girls, gravitating toward stereotypically “boyish” toys—trucks, weapons, superheroes—and preferring books and movies featuring male characters.

According to child development experts, asserting a gender identity and dividing the world into “girl things” versus “boy things” is typical behaviour for preschool-aged children, even for many whose parents have tried to take a more gender-neutral approach.

“Between the ages of three and five, children start paying a lot of attention to their peers,” says Christia Spears Brown, a developmental psychologist, mother of two and author of the book Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes. Spears Brown says kids this age also become very aware of categories, so they start noticing that we refer to children as boys and girls (and often have gender-divided washrooms, change rooms and clothing aisles). And, she says, they look around to see what other boys and girls are doing and start to segregate themselves by gender. Some parents shrug off these developments, saying boys will be boys or girls will be girls, under the assumption that gender differences are innate and inevitable, but Brown says the scientific research into children’s toy preferences and peer groups doesn’t support this interpretation. She argues that although some studies have found small differences between baby girls and boys—mainly related to minor differences in behaviour (such as activity levels), early exposure to testosterone in utero and the timing of language acquisition—there is an established body of research that shows the gender divide in preschoolers is largely learned through culture and socialization with peers.

So girls want to be like other girls and boys want to be like other boys, but why do so many groups of little girls gravitate to princess play while boys act out superhero battles? Shauna Pomerantz, a sociologist and professor of child and youth studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., says these early gendered preferences are heavily shaped by what is marketed to kids. “It’s no coincidence that little girls pick up the princess thread around age three, because that’s exactly the target age group for princess products.” Pomerantz tried to ban princess paraphernalia in her own home, but came to accept that once kids head off to preschool, “gendered marketing and peer groups can be more powerful than parents’ influence.”

That doesn’t mean parents should throw up their hands and do nothing. Pomerantz suggests continuing to expose children to a variety of toys and activities—dolls and dance for boys; blocks and sports for girls. Pomerantz also encourages critical thinking about gender roles and stereotypes. “I ask questions about toys or TV shows I find problematic and try to offer my own opinion without disparaging their choices,” she says.

Toronto mom Helen Hargreaves has had some success getting her frilly-dress-obsessed four-year-old daughter to think beyond the traditional princess script. “My wife and I don’t care what she wears, as long as she also gets the message that being in a dress doesn’t limit what you can do in life,” says Hargreaves. “Her current career goal is to be Queen Elsa who drives a garbage truck, so I think we’re doing an OK job so far.”

Power of suggestion
In a classic toy study from 1995, four- and five-year-old girls showed a preference for toys labelled “for girls,” and boys the same age preferred toys labelled “for boys,” even when the toys were the exact same items, with just the labels switched. The toys weren’t trucks or dolls: They were bells, magnets, a magnifying glass and a melon baller.

Read more:
11 kids’ books that challenge gender stereotypes
Gender in the classroom
Does your child challenge traditional gender roles?

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