Gender constancy refers to the understanding that gender is a stable characteristic that cannot change over time and that is not altered by superficial physical transformations such as wearing a dress or cutting one's hair. As children come to see gender as a stable, important characteristic of themselves and other people, they begin to use the concept consistently to organize social information. They learn societal expectations for members of each gender by watching the actions of the people around them.
Kohlberg proposed that children use their developing knowledge of cultural gender expectations to teach themselves to adopt culturally defined gender roles (self-socialization). He argued that children acquire a strong motive to conform to gender roles because of their need for self-consistency and self-esteem. A young boy says to himself, "I am a boy, not a girl; I want to do boy things, play with boy toys, and wear boy clothes."
Children hold more rigid gender stereotypes before they acquire gender constancy (ages two through seven); once gender constancy is achieved, they become more flexible in their adherence to gender roles. As children enter adolescence, their thinking about the world again enters a new stage of development, becoming even more complex and less rigid. As a result, they may be able to achieve whatJoseph Pleck has called "sex-role transcendence" and to choose their interests and behaviors somewhat independent of cultural gender-role expectations.
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