At what Age do Children Make Gender-Stereotyped Game and Toy Choices?

At what Age do Children Make Gender-Stereotyped Game and Toy Choices?

The topic of gender-stereotyped game and toy choices among children is one that has captured the attention of psychologists, educators, and parents alike. This article aims to delve into the age at which children start making gender-stereotyped game and toy choices, how this behavior is influenced, and its long-term impact on children. The emphasis here is on empirical data and social learning theory to back up the arguments made.

At What Age Do Children Start Making Gender-Stereotyped Choices?

According to numerous studies, children begin making gender-stereotyped toy choices as early as 18 to 24 months. This is around the time when they start becoming aware of their own gender identities and those of others. A seminal study by Carol Martin and Charles Halverson (1981), based on Social Learning Theory, supports the idea that children’s toy preferences are significantly influenced by socialisation processes, which can occur even before the child is two years old.

Factors Influencing Gender-Stereotyped Choices

Several factors contribute to the making of gender-stereotyped game and toy choices. Parental Influence is a significant factor; for instance, parents often buy ‘boys’ toys like cars and action figures for their sons and ‘girls’ toys like dolls and kitchen sets for their daughters. Media Influence, especially advertising targeting children, is another key factor. In South Africa, it’s common to see toy sections in stores clearly divided into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ aisles, further entrenching these stereotypes.

The Long-Term Impact

Gender-stereotyped toy choices can have a long-lasting impact on children. According to Erikson’s Psychosocial Development Theory, early experiences play a crucial role in shaping one’s identity. In this case, the choices children make or are led to make can influence their perception of what roles are appropriate for their gender, potentially limiting their interests and career choices in the future.


Social Learning Theory: Modeling Behavior

Example 1: In a South African household, a young boy observes his father fixing cars and playing with mechanical toys. As a result, the boy develops a preference for car toys and tools. Theoretical Fact: According to Bandura’s Social Learning Theory, children learn through observation, imitation, and modeling. By observing their same-gender parent, children often develop preferences that align with traditional gender roles.

Cognitive Development Theory: Self-Concept

Example 2: A young girl in Grade R (Kindergarten) chooses to play with dolls during free playtime at school because she identifies as female and believes dolls are for girls. Theoretical Fact: Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory posits that children build their own understanding and identity, including gender identity, through cognitive processes. As they grow, children categorize themselves and their behavior in line with societal norms.

Gender Schema Theory: Cultural Influence

Example 3: In a Cape Town toy store, a child heads straight to the ‘pink aisle,’ already conditioned to associate the colour pink with femininity. Theoretical Fact: Gender Schema Theory suggests that societal norms, including cultural ideas about what is ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine,’ become integrated into an individual’s self-concept from a young age.

Erikson’s Psychosocial Development Theory: Role Confusion

Example 4: A teenager feels conflicted about pursuing a career in nursing, a field often seen as ‘feminine,’ although he has a genuine interest in it. Theoretical Fact: Erikson’s Psychosocial Development Theory talks about ‘Role Confusion’ during adolescence. At this stage, teenagers are highly influenced by societal expectations, which can create internal conflict when their interests diverge from traditional gender roles.

Operant Conditioning: Reinforcement and Punishment

Example 5: A young girl is often praised when she plays with ‘girl-appropriate’ toys like kitchen sets but receives no such encouragement when playing with building blocks. Theoretical Fact: B.F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning theory explains how behavior can be shaped by reinforcement or punishment. Here, the girl is being positively reinforced to conform to gender norms.

Object Relations Theory: Early Attachment

Example 6: A young boy who has a close relationship with his mother often emulates her by playing ‘house’ and cooking games, defying traditional masculine roles. Theoretical Fact: Object Relations Theory suggests that early attachments can significantly influence preferences and identity, sometimes even overriding societal gender norms.

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The age at which children start making gender-stereotyped game and toy choices is surprisingly young, with indications that it starts around 18 to 24 months. Influences such as parental preferences and media contribute to this behaviour. The impact of these early choices can be profound, affecting not only immediate toy preferences but also potentially shaping future interests and career choices. Hence, it’s crucial for stakeholders like parents and educators to be aware of these patterns and make conscious efforts to promote more diverse and inclusive play options for children.

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