Approach versus Avoidance Effects

Many of the gender labeling studies included a neutral condition in their design, which involved either labeling the task as appropriate for both girls and boys or not applying any label to the task. The inclusion of this condition can help delineate whether the observed differences between same-sex and opposite-sex conditions is due to children approaching same-sex labeled tasks, avoiding opposite-sex labeled tasks, or both. This distinction can have important implications for the development of effective interventions that seek to counter the negative influence of gender stereotypes.

A list of the type of conditions that were used in each study is provided in Table 13.1. Within the relevant exploration comparisons that found overall gender labeling effects (Bradbard & Endsley, 1983; Bradbard et al., 1986, only 6- to 9-year-olds), it appears that children are likely to explore same-sex labeled toys as well as to avoid opposite-sex labeled toys. This finding seems to be the same for both girls and boys. The results from the preference studies, however, seem more variable. The one relevant study that assessed younger children found that preferences were only affected when the children felt the task was appropriate for them (Martin et al., 1995). In contrast, the two relevant studies for the middle age group (6 to 9 years old) are mixed and seem to be somewhat more dependent on gender. Both girls and boys illustrated avoidance behavior (Montemayor, 1974; White, 1978), but only girls showed approach behavior (White, 1978). The one relevant preference study for children 10 and older suggests that boys' preferences are affected by same-sex and opposite-sex labels, whereas girls show no effects (Stein et al., 1971). Similar to the preference studies, the results from the performance studies show gender differences in children's responses to the labels. While girls are less likely overall to show gender labeling effects, they seem to be more likely to show approach behavior when compared to avoidance behavior (Montemayor, 1974). On the other hand, boys seem to show avoidance behavior more consistently than approach behaviors (Gold & Berger, 1978).

An analysis of the approach/avoidance patterns offers two tentative conclusions. First, it seems that even though younger children show avoidance behavior when their exploration and performance is assessed, they might be less likely to tell an adult that they dislike opposite-sex toys (i.e., preferences). This difference suggests that preschool children's conscious statements might not always be reliable indicators of the extent to which they are affected by gender stereotypes. Second, this review implies that boys are more likely to show avoidance behaviors and that girls are more likely to show approach behaviors. It is important to recognize though that some gender labeling studies did find approach effects in boys and avoidance effects in girls. In addition, many studies found nonsignificant differences in the predicted direction that may have been significant with larger sample sizes (e.g., Montemayor et al., 1974; Gold & Berger, 1978). Therefore, more definite conclusions regarding these issues need to await future research.

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