Cultural Contexts

Social-learning theorists such as Walter Mischel have described mechanisms of learning through which children come to exhibit sex-typed behavior. Boys and girls often behave differently because they are rewarded and punished for different behaviors. In other words, they receive different conditioning. In addition, children's behavior becomes sex typed because children observe other males and females regularly behaving differently according to their gender, and they imitate or model this behavior.

Parents are especially important in the process of learning one's gender role, both as models for gender-appropriate behavior and as sources of rewards or reinforcement. Because parents become associated with positive experiences (such as being fed and comforted) early in life, children learn to look to them and other adults for rewards. Parents and other adults such as teachers often react differentially to gender-typed behaviors, rewarding gender-appropriate behavior (for example, giving praise or attention) and punishing gender-inappropriate behavior (for example, frowning, ignoring, or reprimanding).

As children become more involved with their peers (children their own age), they begin to influence one another's behavior, often strongly reinforcing traditional gender roles. The fact that children are usually given different toys and different areas in which to play based on their gender is also important. Girls are given opportunities to learn different behaviors from those of boys (for example, girls learn nurturing behavior through playing with dolls) because they are exposed to different experiences.

Using what is called a cognitive developmental perspective, Lawrence Kohlberg described developmental changes in children's understanding of gender concepts. These changes parallel the broad developmental changes in the way children's thinking is organized, first described by Jean Piaget and Barbel Inhelder. Children mature naturally through stages of increasingly complex cognitive organization. In the area of understanding gender, the first stage is the acquisition of a rudimentary gender identity, the ability to categorize oneself correctly as a boy or a girl.

Children are able to apply correct gender labels to themselves by about age three. At this stage, young children base gender labeling on differences in easily observable characteristics such as hairstyle and clothing, and they do not grasp the importance of genital differences in determining gender. As children's thinking about the physical world becomes more complex, so does their understanding of gender. Gradually, by about age seven, children enter a second stage and acquire the concept known as gender constancy.

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