When do children start to understand gendered codes and signs?
Already as an infant the child starts to organise the world according to gender, what is masculine, what is feminine, what is for both genders. In navigating, sorting the world and finding its place, the child is exposed to a number of symbols and narratives. Here are a few examples: colour symbolism (what does the colour pink mean?), dress codes (who wears a dress?), vocations (who drives a bus?).
From the age of approximately 30 months the child starts to learn the importance of symbols and that these represent a sphere outside the book. This means that the child will understand that the people and animals shown in picture books are symbols for girls, boys, men and women. Thus children understand activities, body language and the way men and women move and express themselves in picture books as symbolic descriptions of men and women per se. From around three years of age most children are aware of their own gender and that of other children and adults (Powlishta et al. 2001).
What do picture books mean for the development of gender identity?
When reading picture books, leaflets and browsing the web using a tablet, children use literature in many ways. They feel empathy with children who are sad, are inspired by children who do incredible things and are fascinated by vehicles and creatures. The gender patterns of picture books are an integral part of this.
In picture books children encounter and recognise their own gender, the gender of other children and the gender of adults, and these descriptions give models and outlines of ways of behaving, acting and thinking which children try out. The gender researcher Susanne Keunert (2000) describes picture books as one of several stages children use in their exploration of and work to develop identity and gender identity.
Precisely as the peer group, parents and day care employees, picture books are “objects” children use in their work to develop gender identity. Pictures and stories are used for the major task children have in trying to determine what kind of girl or boy they are, and what they can do and what is not permitted for a girl or boy.
The picture books give children the opportunity to know a larger world than they would otherwise have been able to know. Literature gives children an opportunity to mentally try out action alternatives and behaviour they would otherwise not have dared nor had the opportunity to try. Thus the thresholds and boundaries for their gender’s opportunities and limitations can be stretched. Girls may try being a pirate, boys may try out dresses and children may imaging having two fathers and so on.
Joyful play, action heroes and pink tulle
Younger children are often fascinated by typical and extreme features of their own and the opposite gender. Many girls are interested in princess roles and pink billowing dresses. Similarly many boys are fascinated by hyper-masculine heroes, athletes and music artists. This often does not originate from their mother or father, but rather through films, picture books and media presentations, where gender typical cultural images are available to children (Bredesen 2004). The joy children feel when trying out gender-typical repertoires should not be underestimated. This does not necessarily imply that the child will buy into the complete package laying out how the genders deal with each other. What at first glance may appear gender traditional may on closer thought often demonstrate distance to or negotiation of the stereotypical image (Davies 2003).
Based on his research, Danish child researcher Jan Kampmann (2000) states that each child and each new generation invent what gender should mean for them. Based on the surroundings and children’s processing of these, the varieties of children and young people are always slightly different from what existed before.
Bredesen, Ole: Nye jenter og gutter – en ny pedagogikk? Cappelen Akademisk. Oslo, 2004.
Davies, Bronwyn: Hur flickor och pojkar gör kön. Liber. Stockholm, 2003.
Keunert, Susanne: Geschlechtserwerb und Medienrezeption. Opladen, 2000.
Kampmann, Jan: Børnekultur, køn og læreprocesser i børnehave og indskoling. I Kvinder, Køn og Forskning. Nr. 1, 2000.
Powlishta, Kimberly K, Maya G. Sen, Lisa A. Serbin, Diane Poulin-Dubois, Julie A. Eichstedt: From infancy through middle childhood: The role of cognitive and social factors in becoming gendered. In Handbook of the psychology of women and gender. John Wiley & Sons, 2001. 116-132.