Gender Self-Socialization in Early Childhood

Department of Psychology, California State University, Long Beach, USA

PDF version


The role of gender in the lives of young children has garnered attention, as early gender-related concepts, self-perceptions, preferences, and behaviour have the potential to affect choices, aspirations, social networks and many other future life domains. Gender is one of the first social categories children become aware of and, in early childhood, is highly important to most children. There are three main perspectives on factors influencing gender development: biology, socialization and cognition.1 We focus on one facet of the cognitive perspective, which emphasizes children’s own active role in shaping their gender development.


Self-socialization theories propose that children are “gender detectives,” intrinsically motivated agents actively seeking out information about gender.2 Further, children’s understanding and awareness of gender affects how they organize and interpret the information they collect.1 Gender schemas, or organized knowledge structures, provide standards for them to guide their behaviour. Finally, these theories emphasize developmental change in children’s knowledge about gender and in their gender-related behaviours.3


Parents and practitioners may strive toward the ideal of individuality, often believing that children should be free of societal constraints based on gender. Unrestricted by gender stereotypes and prescribed roles, they hope that children will be exposed to a wider variety of situations and people to develop a broader array of skills.4 However, some parents can be dismayed, when, despite efforts to be “gender-neutral,” their young children may act or dress in highly gender-stereotypical ways. Acting in gender-stereotypical ways in early childhood is normative and gender self-socialization theories explain why.

Research Context

Research on gender development has received broader attention since the late 1960s, accompanying the feminist movement.5 An emphasis on cognition in gender development became prevalent in the late 1970s to early 1980s when psychology in general became influenced by cognitive theories.6 Gender development research and self-socialization theories have largely focused on normative trends in White, middle-class American children. Recently, however, there have been pushes to learn from more diverse populations.

Key Research Questions

Inquiry into the active role of children in shaping their own gender development focuses on two broad questions: (1) When do children learn about gender and how does this knowledge about gender change over time? (2) How does children’s knowledge about gender affect their gender development?

Recent Research Results

When do children learn about gender and how does this knowledge about gender change over time? Psychologists have studied many types of cognitions in children related to gender, including: awareness of gender categories, understanding of gender constancy and knowledge of gender stereotypes. Children can perceptually discriminate males and females even in infancy.7,8 However, children are not thought to conceptually understand gender categories until 18 to 24 months.9 By about 27 to 30 months of age, sometimes earlier, children seem to have a rudimentary sense of gender identity, shown by the ability to verbally label their own gender (“boy”/“girl”).10,11

Children further learn about gender and develop a sense of gender identity through early childhood. Kohlberg proposed that toddlers often consider gender to be fluid and over time learn about its relative permanence (gender constancy).12 This involves understanding that gender remains permanent over time (a boy becomes a man) and superficial transformations (a girl remains a girl even if she wears pants or plays with trucks). Research has shown across different cultures that understanding of gender constancy is usually attained by age 6 to 7.13

A third type of knowledge that children gain are gender stereotypes. As early as 18 months of age, children have knowledge of gender stereotypes that grows in amount and in complexity across development.14 Young children often rigidly believe and endorse these gender stereotypes, but start to show flexibility (both girls and boys can be strong) around age 6 to 8.15 The combination of attaining a sense of gender identity with knowledge of gender stereotypes provides the basis for gender schemas (organized knowledge structures).

How does children’s knowledge about gender affect their gender development? Self-socialization theories posit that children’s knowledge about gender motivates them to be similar to those of the same gender while distinct from those of the other gender.3 They then learn what each gender entails and attempt to follow these gender norms and stereotypes. Research has found that after children achieve basic gender identities, they have heightened attention to information related to gender and especially attend to same-gender models. Simultaneously, they exhibit improved memory for that which they deem relevant for their own gender, while also distorting information to fit their schemas.16,17,18 With this constructed and consolidated information, children learn how to act in gender-stereotypical ways.19

Early childhood is a time of “gender rigidity” in behaviour and beliefs. Children at this age show high engagement with gender-stereotypical toys, increasingly avoid cross-gender-stereotypical toys, and increasingly dress in gender-stereotypical ways.20,21,22 In support of these theories, research has sometimes found that children’s knowledge about gender predicts gender-stereotypical behaviour in early childhood.8,9,23 For example, children who understand gender labels sooner tend to hold stronger gender-typed preferences and use gender stereotypes to guide their behaviours.24

Children’s knowledge about gender is theorized to also have immediate consequences for their feelings and attitudes toward own-gender and other-gender peers.25,26 Indeed, early childhood is also a time of “rigidity” in gender attitudes. Children evaluate their own gender group more positively than they do the other gender group.25 They also tend to favor their own gender in their behaviour, such as in allocating rewards.27 Gender segregation begins in early childhood as well.28 Girls and boys increasingly prefer associating with their own gender, a phenomenon that continues through elementary school. Some research supports the idea that children’s knowledge about gender relates to gender attitudes and sex segregation.16,29,30 However, there is still much to be known in this area.

Research Gaps

There is much evidence supporting the idea that children shape their own gender development. Though researchers have shown that children’s knowledge and understanding about gender is related to their gender-stereotypical behaviour and attitudes, some studies, however, find no connections.8,9 It is likely that several factors (e.g., prenatal biological influences, media portrayals, peer and parental attitudes) interact together with self-socialization to affect children’s gender-related behaviour, yet few studies have attempted to test this interaction. Additionally, few studies have examined gender self-socialization beyond normative, White, middle-class, or American children. Finally, more research is needed to understand the longer-term consequences of self-socialization and early gender-typing, such as for later goals, preferences, gender attitudes and well-being.


While multiple factors affect children’s gender development, children also play their own active role. Starting very early on in development, children seek to classify themselves by gender once they have recognized distinct gender groups. Young children then strive to make meaning of gender, paying attention to information about gender and forming gender schemas. Because children’s cognitions about gender change over time, it is expected that their gender-related behaviours, beliefs, and attitudes should as well. Indeed, it has been found that early childhood is a time of increasing “rigidity” in gender-stereotypical preferences for peers and toy activities, as well as in their gender-stereotypical play and dress. There is also evidence that children relax in following these strict gender norms around the time of middle elementary school. Much research has found support for connections between children’s growing knowledge of gender and their gender-stereotypical behaviours, beliefs, and attitudes; however these connections are not always found.9

Implications for Parents, Services and Policy

Children’s quick grasp of the concept that our world can be divided into gender groups reflects how heavily our society emphasizes gender. Nearly every aspect of life is infused with connotations of maleness or femaleness. A downside of highlighting gender to such a degree is that it can increase gender stereotyping and negative gender discriminatory behaviour.31,32 This stereotyping and prejudice can lead to reduction in the diversity of choices, skills and relationships available to children.

Even with a de-emphasis on gender in their immediate environments, children will still likely actively construct what gender means. Parents, educators, and practitioners should be aware of what associations are tied to each gender. For example, it seems that young girls pick up on the message that being a girl means looking like a girl and being preoccupied with appearance.21 Boys attune to messages that they need to be tough like superheroes.33 These associations may have negative consequences later in development. Providing a diversity of meanings to associate with each gender teaches children that being a girl or boy is more than just looking pretty or acting tough.


  1. Ruble DN, Martin CL, Berenbaum SA. Gender development. In: Damon W (Series ed.), Eisenberg N (Vol. ed.), Handbook of Child Psychology. Vol. 3. 6th ed. New York, NY: Wiley; 2006:858-932.
  2. Martin CL, Ruble D. Children’s search for gender cues: Cognitive perspectives on gender development. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2004;13(2):67-70.
  3. Martin C, Halverson C. Schematic processing model of sex typing and stereotyping in children. Child Development. 1981;52:1119-1134.
  4. Bem S. Gender schema theory: A cognitive account of sex typing. Psychological Review. 1981;88:354-371. 
  5. Zosuls K, Miller C, Ruble D, Martin C, Fabes R. Gender development research in Sex roles: Historical trends and future directions. Sex Roles. 2011;64(11-12):826-842.
  6. Miller GA. The cognitive revolution: A historical perspective. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 2003;7(3):141-144.
  7. Quinn PC, Yahr J, Kuhn A, Slater AM, Pascalis O. Representation of the gender of human faces by infants: A preference for female. Perception. 2002;31(9):1109–1121.
  8. Martin CL, Ruble DN, Szkrybalo J. Cognitive theories of early gender development. Psychological Bulletin. 2002;128(6):903-933.
  9. Halim ML, Ruble DN. Gender identity and stereotyping in early and middle childhood. In: Chrisler JC, McCreary DR, eds. Handbook of Gender Research in Psychology. New York, NY: Springer-Verlag; 2010.Campbell A, Shirley L, 
  10. Caygill L. Sex-typed preferences in three domains: Do two-year-olds need cognitive variables? British Journal of Psychology. 2002;93(2):203-217.
  11. Zosuls KM, Ruble DN, Tamis-LeMonda CS, Shout PE, Bornstein MH, Greulich FK. The acquisition of gender labels in infancy: Implications for sex-typed play. Developmental Psychology. 2009;45(3):688-701.
  12. Kohlberg L. A cognitive-developmental analysis of children's sex- role concepts and attitudes. In: Maccoby EE, ed. The Development of Sex Differences. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; 1966.
  13. Szkrybalo J, Ruble DN. "God made me a girl": Sex-category constancy judgments and explanations revisited. Developmental Psychology. 1999;35(2):392-402.
  14. Powlishta KK, Sen MG, Serbin LA, Poulin-Dubois D, Eichstedt JA. From infancy to middle childhood: The role of cognitive and social factors in becoming gendered. In: Unger RK, ed. Handbook of the Psychology of Women and Gender. New York, NY: Wiley; 2001:116-132.
  15. Trautner HM, Ruble DN, Cyphers L, Kirsten B, Behrendt R, Hartmann P. Rigidity and flexibility of gender stereotypes in children: Developmental or differential? Infant and Child Development. 2005;14:365–380.
  16. Halim ML, Ruble DN, Tamis-LeMonda CS, Amodio DA, Shrout PE. Gender attitudes of ethnic minority children. In preparation.
  17. Bradbard MR, Martin CL, Endsley RC, Halverson CF. Influence of sex stereotypes on children's exploration and memory: A competence versus performance distinction. Developmental Psychology. 1986;22(4):481-486.
  18. Martin C, Halverson C. The effects of sex-typing schemas on young children's memory. Child Development. 1983;54:563-575. 
  19. Ruble DN. A phase model of transitions: Cognitive and motivational consequences. In: Zanna M, ed. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. San Diego, CA: Academic Press; 1994;26:163-214.
  20.  Martin CL, Eisenbud L, Rose H. Children's gender-based reasoning about toys. Child Development. 1995;66:1453-1471.
  21. Halim ML, Ruble DN, Lurye L, Greulich F, Zosuls K, Tamis-LeMonda CS. The case of the pink frilly dress and the avoidance of all things ‘‘girly’’: Girls’ and boys’ appearance rigidity and cognitive theories of gender development. Developmental Psychology. In press.
  22. Halim ML, Ruble DN, Tamis-LeMonda CS, Shrout P. Rigidity in gender-typed behaviors in early childhood: A longitudinal study of ethnic minority children. Child Development. 2013;84(4):1269-1284.
  23. Halim ML, Ruble DN, Tamis-LeMonda CS, Shrout PE. Children’s cognitions about gender and consequences for gender-typed behavior. (Manuscript under review). 
  24. Fagot BI, Leinbach MD, Hagan R. Gender labeling and the adoption of sex-typed behaviors. Developmental Psychology. 1986;22(4):440-443. 
  25. Cameron J, Alvarez J, Ruble D, Fuligni A. Children's lay theories about ingroups and outgroups: Reconceptualizing research on prejudice. Personality & Social Psychology Review. 2001;5(2):118-128. 
  26. Martin CL, Ruble DN. Patterns of gender development. The Annual Review of Psychology. 2009;61:353-81. 
  27. Yee M, Brown R. The development of gender differentiation in young children. British Journal of Social Psychology. 1994;33(2):183-196. 
  28. Maccoby EE. The Two Sexes: Growing Up Apart, Coming Together. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; 1998. 
  29. Powlishta KK, Serbin LA, Doyle AB, White DR. Gender, ethnic, and body type biases: The generality of prejudice in childhood. Developmental Psychology. 1994:30(4):526-536. 
  30. Martin CL, Fabes RA, Hanish LD, Leonard S, Dinella L. Experienced and expected similarity to same-gender peers: Moving toward a comprehensive model of gender segregation. Sex Roles. 2011;65:826-842.
  31. Bigler R. The role of classification skill in moderating environmental influences on children's gender stereotyping: A study of the functional use of gender in the classroom. Child Development. 1995;66(4):1072-1087.
  32. Halpern D, Eliot L, Bigler RS, et al. The pseudoscience of single-sex schooling. Science. 2011;333(6050):1706-1707.
  33. Paley VG. Boys and girls: Superheroes in the doll corner. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press; 1986.

How to cite this article:

Halim ML, Lindner NC. Gender Self-Socialization in Early Childhood. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Martin CL, topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. Published: December 2013. Accessed April 16, 2024.

Text copied to the clipboard ✓