Even for young children, behaving in ways that don’t conform to traditional gender roles can result in a “backlash” of judgment from others. That’s the conclusion of a study published this month by researchers at Skidmore College.
In the study, the researchers created a series of vignettes describing young boys and girls engaging in behaviors that either conformed with or violated adults’ gender expectations. Specifically, the stories described preschool children behaving in ways that were stereotypically masculine or feminine. In constructing the vignettes, the researchers surveyed 635 adults to learn about how different behaviors tended to align with people’s gender expectations.
These vignettes were then presented to a group of 697 adults, who were asked to rate how likable the children described in the stories were.
It turned out that adults consistently rated the children whose behavior violated gender stereotypes as less likable. Both girls who engaged in “masculine” behavior and boys who engaged in “feminine” behavior were rated as less likable on average, but the effect was especially strong for boys who didn’t conform to gender norms.
In a further study of 731 adults, the researchers obtained the same results. Consistently, adults tended to judge preschool children whose behavior went against gender stereotypes.
These findings highlight one way in which, from an early age, children are rewarded for actions that fit with gender stereotypes and punished for actions that violate these norms. Apparently, children are encouraged to align their behavior with traditional ideas about how boys and girls should act from a very young age. This expectation of engaging in appropriately “masculine” or “feminine” behavior appears to be present for both boys and girls although it may be especially strong for boys.
As the researchers put it, “even young children encounter backlash from adults for stereotype violations,” and “these effects may be strongest for boys.”
Image: Flickr/astrid westvang