We live in a society that defines virtually all things, events, activities and enterprises as more appropriate to one sex than the other: Boys and men play baseball, curse, spit, and like the color blue more than pink; girls and women knit, gossip, care for babies, and like the color pink more than blue. All children are expected to learn these distinctions, or suffer the consequences. Children who learn sex-appropriate behavior and attitudes are likely to be accepted by parents, peers, and teachers; those who do not risk rejection and prejudice. These distinctions by sex are, for the most part, quite arbitrary, but children are required to learn them as early in development as possible - certainly before the end of the preschool years.

Toddlers can barely tell the difference between boys and girls, or identify themselves as male or female. For most children, the first awareness of gender identity - that is, the ability to classify oneself and others by sex - appears in the third year of life. Girls begin to identify with the label girl by their second birthday; boys identify with the label boy approximately a year later (Leinbach & Fagot, 1986). Children's understanding of gender identity develops gradually through preschool years, eventually achieving gender constancy - the concept that gender does not change regardless of how one behaves or what clothes one wears (Bem, 1989).

As gender identity improves, boys and girls learn their respective gender roles - that is, the behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs that a particular culture considers appropriate for males and females. In our society, men are traditionally portrayed as strong, competent, independent, aggressive, and relatively unemotional. In contrast, women are expected to be nurturant, emotional, dependent, unassertive, and compliant.

There is good reason to believe that societal values have changed substantially in recent years, allowing males to be more nurturant and emotional, and females to be more assertive and independent. As welcome as these changes may be for society, these changes in cultural values create "moving targets" for children's gender role learning. For example, televised images of women in combat roles and men as nurses in recent military actions challenge young children's thinking with respect to female and male gender roles.

The child's emerging concepts of gender identity, gender constancy, and gender role will have enormous impact on social adjustment. We will now look more closely at how children learn and about gender.

Comprehensive treatment on gender.