Another prominent feature of children's friendships is gender segregation—the tendency of children to associate with others of their same sex. Consider the situation we observed while testing 4-year-old children in a preschool. As the children returned from their outside play period, a new boy in class took a seat in a circle of chairs. Several other boys ran immediately to him, yelling, "Get up, that's where the girls sit!" Hearing this, the new boy leaped up and began to furiously dust off the back of his pants! What did he think was on the chair? Cooties?

There is no doubt that gender segregation exists. In fact, it is nearly universal, occurring in every cultural setting in which researchers have observed children selecting playmates (Fabes, Martin, & Hanish, 2003; Whiting & Edwards, 1988). But how does it begin, and why? There are no clear answers to these questions, but we can learn more by looking at how gender segregation evolves across childhood and adolescence.

By 2 to 3 years of age, children are beginning to show a clear preference for playing with other children of their own sex (Serbin, Moller, Gulko, Powlishta, & Colburne, 1994). At this age children are more interactive and sociable when playing with same-sex friends. When they are with the opposite sex, they tend to watch or play alongside the other child rather than interact directly. Gender segregation is very prominent after the age of 3. Preschool children spend very little time playing one-on-one with the opposite sex. They spend some time in mixed-sex groups but spend most of their time, by far, playing with same-sex peers. By 6 years, segregation is so firm that if you watch 6-year-olds on the playground, you should expect to see only 1 girl-boy group for every 11 boy-boy or girl-girl groups (Maccoby & Jacklin, 1987).

Reasons for Gender Segregation

Why does gender segregation exist? Let's consider the most prominent theories.

  • Play compatibility: Some researchers believe that gender segregation occurs because children seek partners whose play styles match or complement their own (Serbin et al., 1994). With toddlers and young children, the first to segregate tend to be the most active and disruptive boys and the most socially sensitive girls (Fabes, 1994; Serbin et al., 1994). Both types of children prefer to play with others like them.
  • Cognitive schemas: Children develop concepts or ideas (schemas) about what boys and girls are typically like. These concepts include stereotyped, and often exaggerated, notions about gender differences. Examples: "Boys are rough and like to fight and play with trucks" and "Girls are nice and like to talk and play with dolls." Children use these cognitive schemas as filters when they judge themselves and observe other children (Martin, 1994). "I am a boy, so I like to play with trucks" is a concept that may lead boys to seek each other as playmates. Schemas can also cause children to filter out or misremember instances that contradict the schema. Children discount the number of times they've seen girls play ball and boys play with dolls, for example. As children learn gender-based schemas, their play and playmate preferences become more segregated.
  • Operant conditioning: Reward and punishment also contribute to gender segregation. Boys in particular—like the new boy in preschool who sat "where the girls sit"—tend to incur harsh criticism when they cross gender lines to play with girls (Fagot, 1977, 1994; Fagot & Patterson, 1969). For most boys, being called a "sissy" is a major insult. Although some girls revel in being "tomboys," others can feel conflicted about being associated with stereotypically masculine activities. Whether consciously or only inadvertently, parents, teachers, peers, the media, and others contribute to gender segregation by reinforcing or rewarding sex-typed behaviors in boys and girls and by punishing behavior that does not conform to stereotypes.
  • Psychoanalytic theory: One of the oldest views on gender segregation was the theory formulated by Sigmund Freud. Although Freud's view isn't given much credence today, he offered the explanation that gender segregation occurs as children repress their sexual feelings during the latency stage of development. That is, children avoid interactions with the opposite sex to avoid the guilty feelings they associate with sexuality. During this stage, children channel their energies into less threatening pursuits such as collecting trading cards or dolls. When they play with opposite-sex friends, children often get teased about being "in love" or "going with" their friend. "No boys allowed!" is the warning posted on many girls' playhouses, and boys reciprocate—at least until the onset of puberty changes things.

Effects of Gender Segregation

Regardless of why gender segregation occurs, one of its consequences is that boys and girls grow up in different gender cultures—different spheres of social influence that are based on the differences between male and female groups and affiliations (Leaper, 1994; Leman, Ahmed, & Ozarow, 2005; Maccoby & Jacklin, 1987). Rough-and-tumble play, chase, keep-away games, superhero warrior games, and competitive sports are more common activities among boys. Physical aggression, independence, and dominance are common themes in boys' play. Girls' play, however, tends to emphasize social closeness and sensitivity. Doll play and playing house, for example, involve role- playing, turn taking, nurturance, and affection. Another difference is that boys tend to play in larger groups; girls develop closer ties in smaller groups. As a consequence, girls may learn to share thoughts and feelings and practice being good listeners in intimate friendships, while boys see intimate sharing as a sign of weakness that would make them more vulnerable within their dominance hierarchies (Leaper, 1994). These different gender cultures can cause conflicts when girls and boys begin to associate more together as they date and interact in adolescence and adulthood. Because they don't share the same gender culture, girls and boys may have difficulty understanding each others' perspectives.

What can adults do to reduce any negative effects of childhood gender segregation? Leaper (1994) provided several practical suggestions. For example, parents can model egalitarian roles at home, arrange more situations in which children can play and cooperate across genders, and reinforce and support children when they do cross stereotypical gender lines in their play. Teachers can arrange cooperative activities among boys and girls, and they can avoid grouping children by gender when they arrange seating and form lines. Teachers also should avoid using gender as a way to address students; for example, they shouldn't shout "Boys, sit down and be quiet!" unless all of the boys were indeed being loud. Of course, it would not be prudent or practical to try to eliminate all gender differences. Nevertheless, children would benefit by being more flexible in their expectations and skills when interacting with the opposite sex.