Theories of Gender Development: Sex-Stereotyped Patterns of Behavior and Toy Choice


Children’s toy play has been shown to be a key component in the development of gendered ideology and identity in childhood. In traditional societies, gender-stereotyped toy play and activities are seen as pervasive methods that children are encouraged to accept or adopt in order to prepare for their gendered roles as adults. However, questions regarding the origins of gender differences in toy preference remain unanswered; perhaps children are aware of gender stereotypes and use this information to inform their play-action, perhaps children prefer toys with function or action, or perhaps social learning and biological influences advise toy play choice. Previous experiments have suggested that by 18 months children begin to make gender-stereotyped toy selections, that toddlers and young children (6+) may be more flexible with gender roles than preschoolers and therefore gender-role understanding may be curvilinear, and that preschool child make sex-typed choices up to 92.4% of the time.

However, despite the wide examination and recognition of gender roles and norms, and therefore gender knowledge and preferences, throughout early childhood, little empirical evidence regarding the influence of parental/external validation or invalidation of gender roles on children’s toy choices has been examined. In the Western world, where newfound ideology on gender, gender roles, and gender-fluidity is becoming normalized, research should seek to incorporate the impact of non-gendered parenting into empirical evidence to better understand how gendered-stereotype perpetuations, or lack thereof, affect children as they mature into adults.

Rationale and Hypothesis

Two cognitive theories offer contemporary perspectives on gender development. Kohlberg’s cognitive-development theory focuses on gender constancy in three stages:

  1. gender identity or the recognition that “I am a girl or I am a boy,”
  2. gender stability or recognizing that gender does not change over time,
  3. gender consistency or the idea that identity is fixed regardless of changes in appearance or action.

Once children acquire these stages of gender understanding, they may extend these ideas into gender categories which will inform their responses to gender norms, attitudes, and behaviors. Alternatively, gender schema theory suggests children form networks of gendered mental associations from social interactions and these schemas mediate and guide behavior. Gender role expectations are first exposed to children from their parents or caretakers and may be seen as early as 24 hours after birth. These expectations may take the form of enforcing gender-specific color clothing upon infants, anticipating different behavior from daughters and sons, and encouraging participation in sex-typed activities or play.

Previous work has found that parental sex-typing of toys and rewarding of gender-stereotyped play has been significantly related to infant and child toy preferences. Yet, little work has been done to examine the impact of non-gendered parenting on infants and children when they are placed in an external (from) home setting. This research seeks to change that. The aim of this study is to review the differences in gender ideology between children who have been raised in traditional gender reinforcement homes with children who have been raised in more egalitarian, feminist, or androgynous parenting homes. This study will replicate gendered-toy choice studies in its methodology; however, it will work to understand the implications for gender theory and child development when children are raised as gender-aschematic.

Parents who attempt to raise gender-aschematic children essentially must undermine the socially dominant gender ideology before it manifests into schemes within their children through two strategies: 1) asserting the idea of gender from a biological standpoint rather than a cultural or 2) providing alternative schemata to children to “build up a resistance” from traditional or dominant gendered culture.

This study attempts to discover if these “immunities” from gender ideology in a home context translate to actions surrounding gender in a social setting. Therefore, the directional, one-tailed hypothesis is as stated: If children, ages 18 months, three years, and five years old, are raised in gender aschematic homes, by parents or caretakers who strive to avoid gendered nurturing, then when placed in the context of a gendered toy choice social situation, across ages they will be less inclined to choose toys that stereotypically match their own gender, with five-year-old girls showing the greatest choice difference in comparison to the same age group of girls raised in traditionally gendered homes.


Participants The participants of this cross-sectional study are composed of 90 Western-raised children; two groups of 45 girls and 45 boys, or three groups of 30 children within each of the three ages being tested (18 months, three-year, and five-year old’s). The ages of the children are based on Martin's and Fein’s toy choice testing structures. 23 girls and 22 boys have been specifically chosen from gender-aschematic homes and 22 girls and 23 boys have been selected from gender-traditional homes. In order for these children to have been selected from claimed gender-aschematic and gender-traditional homes, parents and caretakers of these children were asked to complete the Gender Role Stereotype Scale to assess gender role stereotypes, the Gender Role Beliefs Scale to determine gender role ideology, and the Bem Sex-Role Inventory to test psychological androgyny all in order to determine egalitarian gender beliefs and extend these beliefs to assumed parenting style. Design and Procedure Children will be seated at a table in a pre-school classroom and by a female experimenter presented simultaneously with three toys: a stereotypical masculine, feminine, and neutral toy. The toys have been defined as masculine (ex: vehicles, balls, action figures), feminine (ex: dolls, jewelry, tea set), and neutral (ex: crayons, stuffed animals, play-doh) using Blakemore and Center’s gendered ratings of popular toys.

The children are allowed to examine each of the toys for thirty seconds and then will be asked to verbally rate their interest in playing with each toy on a three-point scale of (1) not at all, (2) a little, (3) a lot, which will be recorded on paper by the experimenter. This will be repeated in 12 rounds of toy choice per child. To analyze, the 36 ordinal data scores per individual will be divided by 12 masculine, 12 feminine, and 12 neutral toy scores and the average found within each of the three groups. Once all scores have been collected and averaged from all participants, a 2 (gender: female, male) x 3 (age: 18 mo, 3yrs, 5yrs) x 2 (context: raised with traditional gender norms, raised without gender norms) ANOVA will be performed to examine interactions between conditions.

Impact and Implications

In posthoc examinations, it is expected that gender-aschematic children with flexible gender norms will make significantly less gender-typed toy choices than children with traditional, rigid gender norms. This is in line with Lobel and Menashri’s findings that children with more flexible norms exhibited less gender-stereotyped choices than children with rigid norms when given gendered toy choices. It is also expected that there will be a significant main effect of sex in which boys will receive higher scores than girls and will therefore demonstrate more gender-typed choices. This may be explained through the idea that socialization pressures on boys to act in accordance with gender norms from parents, teachers, and peers are stronger than the pressures placed on girls. Significant age effects are to be determined. Potentially, all three ages may demonstrate significant biases toward gender toy choice as acknowledged in previous work by Serbin et al of 18-month old’s with apparent gender preferences and Davies’ work that claimed 3-5 years old’s undergo a heightened period of gender category maintenance and seek to validate their gender knowledge. Alternatively, a curvilinear u-shape effect may be seen in which older and younger children (18-months and five years) may display gender biases, but not intermediate-aged children (three years) as seen in research by Stoddart and Turiel. Limitations of this study include the inability to account for aschematic children’s interactions with individuals apart from their parents, such as teachers, who may influence gender schemas through enforcing traditional gender ideology in social settings. However, this experiment seeks to understand whether children can overlook or discount these influences and rely on their parental influence to inform their toy choices. Previous research, as aforementioned, has focused on the emergent age of sex-stereotyped toy choice, the acquisition of information and behavior understanding consistent with gender-type, and that parents of young children tend to reinforce sex-stereotyped patterns of behavior and toy choice. This research proposal seeks to extend these findings and challenge both theories of gender development. Gender-aschematic children may potentially contradict cognitive-developmental theory’s notion that gender understanding is exclusively self-defined by the child through their social interactions and cannot be influenced by parental enforcements of non-gendering. Additionally, gender-aschematic children may invert gender schema theory which claims gendered schemas are predetermined and instead suggest gender-liberated schemes are conceivable. These possibilities must be explored.

29 April 2022
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