How Do Children Learn Gender and Why?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010
14 Pages, Grade: 12,00




2.2.1. Biological accounts of gender differences
2.2.2 Genetic and evolutionary accounts
2.2.3. Freud and the Psychoanalysis
2.2.4. The Role of Socialisation
2.2.5. Cross-cultural Comparisons
2.2.6. Sex-differentiated Responses to Girls and Boys
2.2.7. Social-learning Theory
2.2.8. Gender Behaviour and Language



1. Introduction

The aim of this paper is to critically discuss the hypothesis that children learngender behaviour and if this is true, when and why do they do so. In order todo so, first of all it is necessary to define the terminology used in this paper.In a second step we need to evaluate the present findings with the view tofinding out if there are other approaches to the topic. The following paperwill therefore present the standpoints of different researchers, display bothcontrasts and similarities and try to find arguments supporting or opposingthe findings.

From my point of view, both genetics and socialisation are responsiblefor the gender behaviour, which can be observed in even very young children.‘Gender’, in contrast to sex, is a term, which is investigated at the social,sociological level, but used interchangeably with ‘sex’, which in Westerncultures is used in dichotomous categories: male and female. ‘Sex’ iscommonly understood as a biological, genetic concept which is stable overtime, whereas gender is seen as dynamic, shifting, having multiple versions.In general it can be described as the sense of oneself as man or woman and itreinforces the differences between men and women. However, there is no realagreement on the definition of gender so far. Later on, we will put thisconcept into perspective by introducing further categories of sex and gender.

2. Various Approaches to the Concept of Gender

2.1. Essentialist and Constructionist Approaches to Sex and Gender

Essentialism is an epistemological stance, which holds “the idea that human beings have an essence or fixed nature that is expressed in their behaviour” (Burr 2003: 13). From the essentialist point of view, knowledge is based on ‘things as they are’, fundamentally and basically. Gender and sexuality are fixed essences that reside within us all. They are seen as dichotomous categories, within which we all fall. This position underpins all sex/gender difference research (Burr 2003: 27). Essentialists make us think of females and males almost as two different species.

In contrast to this, social constructionism claims that there is noneutral, fixed or objective reality. Knowledge is believed to be constructedthrough social interaction and ‘facts’ are supposed to be dependent upon thelanguage communities that have created and sustained them (Burr 2000: 4).This includes ‘facts’ about gender and thus raises questions such as: “Whatare real man and woman? Are there only two different sexes and based uponthem only two different gender categories? And least but not last our initialquestion “When do children LEARN gender behaviour and why?”

At this point we have to point to the phenomenon of intersex, whichclearly puts the dichotomy of sex and gender into question. Anne Fausto- Sterling (2000) suggests that we should pay tribute to the biological fact thatsex is a continuum running from female to male rather than a dichotomouscategory. She suggests a system of five sexes (2000: 101), but in order toavoid the assignment of gender based on whatever sex, she revises her initialidea and suggests that “it would help to eliminate the ‘gender’ category fromlicenses, passports, and the like” (111), since it might lead tomisunderstandings and discrimination in case the self-assigned gender of aperson does not match the idea of the legal authority about her/his/? gender.1

Here we can see that the linguistic possibilities to name other genders thanman or woman are equally limited. This is at least the case in Westerncultures. Fausto-Sterling (2000) gives examples of “third genders” in NativeAmerican cultures (Berdaches), in India (Hijras), in the Dominican Republic(guevedoches), or in Papua, New Guinea (kwolu-aatmwol) (109). This,among other things, shows that our dichotomous gender system is not inevitable.

2.2. The Nature - Nurture Debate

This debate basically covers the classic question if our behaviour andpsychological make-up are determined by biological mechanisms, such asgenes and hormones, or are they the product of environmental influences?According to the present view it is both. Nevertheless “claims of the effectsof ‘nurture’ have often been made in response to and reaction against those ofthe claims of ‘nature’ (Burr 2003: 30). In general, biological influences areassumed to be stronger than the influences of social environment. This mightbe the reason why the study of biological sciences has been more relevant tothe education of psychologists [like Vivian Burr] than has sociology. Justthink of Darwin and his idea of natural selection. Or Mendel and the geneticinheritance, based on the difference caused by the two chromosomes xx or xyas well as hormones, which are believed to have influence on gender identity.The later means one’s feeling about being male or female. It also includespsychosexual development, learning social roles, and shaping sexualpreferences (Lorber, Farell 1991: 7)

However, biological reductionism and biology have a longer historyas science than sociology, which accounts for their influence both in thescientific landscape and in social practice.


1 Fausto-Sterling (2000) notes: „Indeed, why are physical genitals necessary for identification? Surelyattributes both more visible (fingerprints and DNA profiles) would be of greater use.“ (111). Of,course, it seems more logical to use these attributes instead of the (so far two) sex categories, but it might not be less dangerous and discriminating. I am really curious about the developments that are going to take place in the future.

Excerpt out of 14 pages


How Do Children Learn Gender and Why?
Justus-Liebig-University Giessen  (Institut für Anglistik)
Applied Linguistics
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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The assignment deals with the phenomenon of gender learning using a sociological (and partly a linguistic) approach. The content was 13 p., but the form only 10.
children, learn, gender
Quote paper
M.A. Irina Maric (Author), 2010, How Do Children Learn Gender and Why?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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