Sex Linked Preferences

The evidence is mixed concerning the development of children's sex-typed preferences for concrete toys and activities. Similar to the issue with assessing stereotype knowledge, the results seem to depend on the type of measure employed (see Aubry et al., 1999). For example, when asking children to make conscious choices based on verbal questions, children show sex-typed preferences as early as 3 years with well-established preferences by age 5 (Carter & Levy, 1988; Coker, 1984; Martin & Little, 1990; Perry, White, & Perry, 1984). On behavioral measures in which children's free play is observed to assess the amount of time they play with masculine and feminine toys, sex-typed preferences have been found in the second year (Weinraub, Clemens, Sockloff, Ethridge, Gracely, & Myers, 1984; Campbell et al., 2002). It is not clear, however, whether these types of behavioral measures are actually examining children's sex-typed preferences. For example, children may initially pick up and explore different toys because of familiarity or attractiveness and these factors may not be final determinants of actual, deliberate preferences. Even if behavioral measures do actually measure preferences, the influence of gender knowledge on children's deliberate choices is likely to be different than its role in an unstructured, novel play environment (Aubry et al., 1999).

After preschool and kindergarten, the developmental pattern of children's preferences for concrete items and activities is not straightforward. Earlier studies have found that boys continue to show an increased preference for masculine activities, whereas girls show a decline in preference for feminine activities and an increased interest in masculine pursuits (see Huston, 1983, for a review). Some more recent studies have continued to find this sex difference (Katz & Boswell, 1986; Katz & Walsh, 1991); however, others have either found that preferences remain stable after kindergarten (Serbin et al., 1993) or that they decline (Aubry et al., 1999; Welch-Ross & Schmidt, 1996). These inconsistent findings may be partly due to individual differences in the developmental course of children's sex-typed preferences (Ruble & Martin, 1998). For example, in a longitudinal study, Trautner (1992) observed two different patterns in children's sex-typed preferences. One pattern involved an increase in same-sex activity and toy preferences until age 7 at which point they either stabilized at a high level or decreased through age 10, whereas other children were already highly stereotyped by age 5 and remained at this level throughout the study. It is interesting though that while the first pattern was somewhat more typical for girls, more boys were observed showing the second pattern. Moreover, developmental patterns also seem to depend on whether children are asked about occupations, toys, or academic subjects (Etaugh & Liss, 1992), on the specific items used within domains such as chores versus attractive toys (see Aubry et al., 1999), and on whether children are asked about their preference for same-sex activities or their rejection of other-sex activities (Aubry et al., 1999; Bussey & Perry, 1982). In using items such as secretary, takes care of children, drives a truck, and boxing gloves to assess children's preferences, Aubry et al. (1999) found that preference trends tended to decline after kindergarten for both same-gender and opposite-gender items. Overall, this indicates that these specific items became less desirable with age. Does this mean that children also became less sex-typed with age? Not necessarily. The boys who liked boxing gloves and shovels in kindergarten might have a strong interest in football, video games, and race car drivers by third grade. This indicates that both boys and girls may continue to remain highly sex-typed with age, but that the way this is manifested may shift to include different same-gender interests, occupations, and traits. Furthermore, analyses need to consider children's same-sex and opposite-sex trends separately to reach a complete picture of children's sex-typed behaviors. While Aubry et al. (1999) found a declining interest in all items over time, children's decreased preference for other-gender items was more pronounced and reached much lower absolute levels by third grade. Taken together, measures assessing children's knowledge and preferences need to be clearly divided according to domain, provide separate same-sex and opposite-sex scores, and include a variety of different items to detect changing perceptions and interests with age.

In addition to examining children's preferences for gender stereotypical toys and activities, some research has examined whether children will tend to label themselves according to gender-typed personality attributes. Given that children do not show knowledge of stereotypes for personality attributes in preschool, it is not surprising that research has found that preschoolers will mainly attribute only positive characteristics to themselves regardless of the stereotypes (Cowan & Hoffman, 1986). However, it is unclear at what age children will begin to show a tendency to self-label according to gender-typed attributes. While some studies have found that children 8- or 9-years old will describe themselves according to gender-typed personality traits (see Aubry et al., 1999 and Ruble & Martin, 1998), a recent study that included both positive and negative attributes found that the same-sex bias observed in the assessment of children's knowledge may show a similar influence on children's willingness to label themselves with only stereotyped items (Aubry et al., 1999). For example, Aubry et al. (1999) found that even by third grade, children continued to endorse a high proportion of opposite-gender positive attributes and persisted in their reluctance to label themselves with same-gender negative attributes. It is possible that children may actually exhibit behavioral manifestations of gender-typed attributes, but their limited self-awareness and/or the demand characteristics of the testing situation influences their answers. Additionally, conducting assessments at the individual level may not adequately assess how children's behaviors are played out in different contexts. Maccoby (2002a) argues that children's gender-typical behavior is not consistent from one situation to another and that certain behaviors that occur at the group level are not apparent at the individual level. Maccoby's point illustrates the need to integrate the individual and group perspectives. Thus, researchers might advance the field of gender development by examining children's "gender signatures" in the same way that Walter Mischel and colleagues emphasize person-situation interactions and "personality signatures" (e.g., Mischel & Shoda, 1995; Shoda, Mischel, & Wright, 1994).

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