The Role of Cognition in Gender Identity
Forming a concept of oneself as either a boy or a girl is a cognitive task. Some theorists have argued that one’s gender identity changes partly as a function of general developments in cognitive ability, especially logical thinking (e.g., Kohlberg, 1966). As we have seen, when children first categorize themselves as boys or girls, they may have done little more than learn a label. Their understanding of the implications of that label is limited. Gradually, they begin to recognize that there is stability to their category membership and, finally, that their category membership is constant, based on underlying properties that do not change when superficial perceptual characteristics alter. In a sense, gender is something that is conserved (at least under normal circumstances), much like number is conserved when candies in a pile are made to look different by spreading them out in a row. We have seen that a full understanding of number conservation typically is achieved between 5 and 7 years and seems to be based on the development of logical thinking. Gender constancy may also be dependent on the logical thinking skills that emerge as children reach middle childhood.
Although developments in logical thinking may be important, there are other cognitive factors that can influence the progress of gender identity, such as being given accurate information about how gender is decided. As we pointed out earlier, adults assign babies to a gender category based on their genitalia. But unless young children are explicitly taught about the importance of genitals to gender assignment, they are likely to be unaware of the typical genital differences between the sexes. References to gender categorization are pervasive in our society, and they are a large part of children’s daily experiences. Not only do children frequently hear themselves being categorized, but many references to other people contain gender labels, such as “This man will help us find the toy department.” However, most of these references are not based on observation of people’s genitals. They depend on people’s other physical attributes, such as size and shape, and on more superficial characteristics, such as clothing and hairstyle. It’s not really surprising, then, that young children are sometimes oblivious to the genital basis for gender assignment or that they might initially assume that gender categories are determined by superficial properties.
Researcher Sandra Bem (1989) tells the story of her son, Jeremy, who was informed about genital differences between boys and girls and about the importance of genitalia in gender assignment. One day, he chose to go off to nursery school wearing barrettes in his hair. When another little boy repeatedly insisted that Jeremy must be a girl because he was wearing barrettes, Jeremy just as vehemently insisted that he was a boy, because “wearing barrettes doesn’t matter; being a boy means having a penis and testicles.” Jeremy was even provoked enough at one point to pull down his pants to demonstrate. The other boy was not impressed. He said, “Everybody has a penis; only girls wear barrettes.”
A study by Bem (1989) illustrates that when children do have knowledge of the genital basis of gender assignment, as Jeremy did, they are fortified with information that may help them to avoid some confusion about gender constancy. She presented 3- to 5-year-olds with two large photographs of nude toddlers. One was a boy (Gaw), and one a girl (Khwan). Bem gave the pictured toddlers Thai names so that most North American youngsters would be unfamiliar with the names and would not associate them with gender. Children were asked to say whether a pictured toddler was a boy or a girl, and then were asked to explain how they knew. If no genital information was offered, the researcher probed by asking questions such as “Can you point to anything about Gaw’s body that makes Gaw a boy?” Nearly half of the children showed no awareness of the relevance of genitalia for specifying sex. The children who did know about genitals also seemed to have a better grasp of gender constancy. When they were shown pictures of Gaw or Khwan with cross-gendered clothes or hairstyles, they asserted that their genders had not changed.
It appears, then, that when adults provide appropriate scaffolding, giving children accurate information about how gender is assigned, children’s understanding of their own gender identity is more advanced.
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