Newswise — Turn on Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel and you’ll find commercials advertising baby dolls to young girls and trucks to boys. Marketing tactics often assign color to toys, like pink for girls or blue for boys, reiterating gender norms that lead children to overgeneralize categories about the intended user of the toy.
Yet, as the holidays approach, adults shopping for young children may notice an absence of gender-specific labeling and signs in big retail chains that are seeking to blur the lines between traditional gender norms. Developmental psychologist Clare Conry-Murray, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Saint Joseph's University, says that the incorporation of gender-neutral labeling is a positive first step in the journey toward combating these biases.
In Conry-Murray's research — “Children’s Judgments of Inequitable Distributions That Conform to Gender Norms” — published recently in Merrill-Palmer Quarterly (MPQ), Conry-Murray discovered that kids are influenced by gender norms in potentially harmful ways: They do not recognize unequal opportunities available to boys and girls.
In the MPQ study, Conry-Murray discovered that both genders thought that it was appropriate for girls to be rewarded with a set of used Old Maid playing cards, even as boys received an expensive, brand-new junior robotics kit.
Conry-Murray says that "kids pick up on even subtle cues in the environment and they begin to realize that gender is an extremely important category to adults without anyone having to tell them."
And what if the little girl wants the truck, and the boy wants the doll? In a 2013 study published in The Journal of Experimental Child Psychology Conry-Murray revealed that 20 percent of children want gender atypical toys, but they worry about teasing and assume that their peers have preferences in line with gender norms.
“I found that almost half of the 6- and 8-year-olds tested believed that all children would agree to receive a gender-norm consistent toy, even if it was of much lower value than the toy the other sex received.”
However, when made explicit, young children understand the importance of personal choice even if it is not consistent with gender norms. In a study published in Child Development, Conry-Murray and Turiel sampled children ages 4 to 8, asking whether parents should give a truck or doll to their daughter when the she asked for the truck. Conry-Murray found that most children in the sample said the parents should comply with the child's choice.
“Since kids don't see these examples often enough, they construct an idea of gender as binary and inflexible,” Conry-Murray says.
While children are susceptible to subtle messages that reinforce gender-specific norms, Conry-Murray suggests that, “parents can help by encouraging kids to go beyond traditional gender norms, and by pointing out examples of others who challenge restrictive gender norms.”
Conry-Murray can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling 610-660-3240.