An Overview of Gender Constancy

Child wearing a pink dress-up dress.

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In its simplest terms, gender constancy refers to the theory that children develop a sense of gender over time and eventually come to understand that their biological sex is fixed and permanent.

This theory is over 50 years old and originates from the work of American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. As simple as the theory sounds, however, it's not a simple concept in the least—which is why research on gender development has continued to this day.

It's also true that the theory of gender constancy was developed at a different time in history, and doesn't reflect current social norms as far as what is acceptable or what children should be taught as they grow and learn. So, as you read through the theory and its different components, keep in mind that it is a theory that was based on the work of Piaget about cognitive development, and doesn't take into account any research, theory, or social transitions that have happened in the 50+ years since.

Definition of Gender Constancy

The concept of gender constancy refers to a cognitive stage of development of children at which they come to understand that their gender (meaning their biological sex) is fixed and cannot change over time.

This theory proposed by Kohlberg had its roots in the cognitive development theory of French psychologist Jean Piaget and was first proposed in 1966. Kohlberg argued that the most important aspect of gender identity development was the cognitive development of the child.

Modern Thought

While the gender constancy theory states that biological sex is fixed and cannot change over time, we now know that there should be a broader interpretation of sex and gender that was once theorized. In addition, children should always be taught that self-acceptance is most important.

Kohlberg's Theory of Gender Development

To understand Kohlberg's theory, it is first important to understand the concept of a "schema" in terms of cognitive development. A schema is a conceptual pattern held in the mind through which children make sense of the world, and in this case, their gender.

A gender schema model proposes that children develop their gender identity through internal motivation to conform to what society expects based on their biological sex. However, Kohlberg argued that this motivation was first dependent on the child passing through a number of stages of cognitive development.

While the gender schema model proposes that children have an internal motivation to conform, it's important to note that with changing gender norms and changing expectations of society, internal motivation may also shift. Regardless, children should never be forced to conform to a gender role that makes them uncomfortable.

This pattern of cognitive development was seen to take place between the ages of two and seven years old, during which time children grow to understand that their sex cannot be changed.

Once children reach this stage of development, Kohlberg argued that they would be motivated to watch how they were expected to behave and act in accordance with that gender role.

In this way, Kohlberg maintained that children would not develop an understanding of gender roles until they had learned that sex remains constant throughout life.

Kohlberg's Stages

Stage 1: Gender labeling (by age 3)

In the gender labeling stage, children can say whether they are a girl or boy as well as the gender of other people. However, they do not understand that this is a characteristic that can't change over time, like the length of someone's hair or the clothes that they are wearing.

Stage 2: Gender stability (by age 5)

In the gender stability stage, children start to realize that boys will grow up to be dads and girls grow up to be moms, etc. However, they still don't understand that gender can't be changed by changes in appearance or choice of activities.

Stage 3: Gender constancy (by age 7)

By about age 6 or 7, children begin to understand that sex is permanent across situations and over time. Once they develop this understanding, they begin to act as members of their sex.

In this way, Kohlberg argued that the most important aspect of gender development is not biological instincts or cultural norms; rather, it is a child's cognitive understanding of the social world around them.

In other words, it's not about a child feeling motivated by rewards to act in a certain way according to what is expected of them being a boy or girl.

Instead, their gender identity development depends on their sense of being male or female, which grows in stages that match their cognitive development. And, these stages closely parallel the theory of Piaget regarding children's cognitive development.

Research Evidence of Gender Constancy

Research evidence to support the theory of the development of gender constancy proposed by Kohlberg is mixed.

  • Some early researchers (from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s) argued that children as young as age two naturally show gender-biased behavior such as selecting certain toys or playing with other girls or boys.
  • Some argue that parental reinforcement of gender-consistent behaviors is also critically important to a child developing gender identity.
  • Some studies show that even infants can discriminate between male versus female faces and voices.
  • Some argue that gender constancy is actually the most immature form of gender conception.

In one related study, Slaby and Frey (1975) examined children's understanding of gender using a Gender Concept Interview. They surveyed 55 two through five-year-olds and asked 14 questions and counter questions.

Examples of the questions are below, each representing different stages of Kohlberg's theory:

  • Is this a girl or a boy? (showing a photo)
  • Are you a boy or a girl?
  • When you were a baby, were you a girl or a boy?
  • When you grow up, will you be a mommy or a daddy?
  • If you wore girl's clothes, would you be a girl?
  • Could you be a boy if you wanted?

Then, the researchers showed the children a film and measured how much they paid attention to the male or female character. What they found was that children with stronger gender constancy were more likely to pay attention to the same-sex role model. This provides support for Kohlberg's theory.

Other Theories of Gender Development

Kohlberg theorized that the development of gender roles depends on a child grasping the concept that their sex remains fixed.

However, others have argued that human development is a much more complex process that depends on a variety of factors interacting with each other. Most notably, Canadian-American psychologist Albert Bandura argued that development was a result of an interaction of behavior, the person, and the environment.

From this perspective, for example, a child who receives negative feedback about wearing a dress as a boy would begin to develop an understanding of gender roles. In other words, how you are socialized as a child gives you information about how to go out into the world as a girl or boy. This might be influenced by the clothes your parents buy for you, the decor in your room, the toys you play with, and the activities that you are encouraged to take part in.

If you are rewarded for acting in a way in accordance with your gender role, then you would be motivated to act in accordance with gender stereotypes.

This external feedback would eventually become internalized such that you would feel better about yourself when acting in accordance with gender stereotypes. As you grow older, internal self-regulation would grow more important.

Note again that this is an older theory based on a time when gender roles were less fluid.

At the same time, other theorists agree that cognition is important to some degree.

For example, Martin and Halverson (1981) provided a new theory of gender typing, in which they proposed that stereotypes emerge as a way of processing a large amount of information. In other words, as a little boy or girl, the world can be confusing. So, it's easier to start categorizing things based on gender. They argue that stereotypes are kind of like road maps on how to handle interactions with new people.

Martin and Halverson argued that children are quite rigid in using these stereotypes, but as they grow older, they become more flexible.

A Word From Verywell

Although gender identity development continues to be studied to this day, the original concept proposed by Kohlberg has received mixed support. It is only with continued effort to understand the development of gender identity in children that we can properly understand this phenomenon. In addition, with our shifting understanding of biological sex and gender, it is likely that theories such as these will continue to evolve.

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