The process of learning about sex/gender

To what extent are men and women different because of biological factors? What role do social/environmental factors play? Those who claim the superiority of biological influences may point to studies showing that gender differences emerge at an early age for support. As a father, I often hear other parents talking about just how different boys and girls are (assuming, it appears, that these differences are simply natural). However, considering the concept of schema processing helps us see that children adopt particular sex roles as they integrate their own sense of self with their developing gender schema during a process that occurs over many years.

As a point of comparison, Fausto-Sterling (2000) discusses the process through which children learn to smile — a behavior that, like gender, people may assume is simply natural. At first, newborns exhibit a behavior in which the face relaxes while the sides of the mouth stretch outward and up (this has been observed in fetuses as early as 26 weeks of gestation), which suggests there is initially a basic set of neural connections that enable a developing human to “smile”. Within a few weeks after birth, a more complex smile develops in which the lips curl up farther, cheek muscles contract, and the skin around the eyes wrinkles. By around three months of age, babies generally have begun to smile in non-random bursts in response to stimuli. Over the next two years of life, smiling begins to be accompanied by other facial expressions (e.g., nose wrinkles, blinks, brow raises) used to express emotions ranging from pleasure to mischief. While the muscles and nerves that govern smiling develop and become more complex during the first two years of age, so too do the functions and social contexts that elicit smiling. Thus, what may seem like a simple physiological response becomes “socialized” as a child develops.

With respect to gender, a similar social developmental process exists in which children adopt particular roles and behaviors as they integrate their own sense of self with their developing gender schema. For example, children younger than 1.5 years of age generally do not yet have a working knowledge of gender; they cannot correctly label photos as “boy” or “girl” (Fagot & Leinbach, 1989). By age 2.25 years, however, about half of children can correctly label people as “boy” or “girl”. These “early labelers” tend to receive more positive and negative feedback from parents regarding appropriate or inappropriate gender-typed play than do children who learn sex-based labeling at a later time. This suggests there are social influences upon what we might often assume are biological sex differences. Further, children seem to base their initial understandings of sex primarily on cultural markers. For example, children under the age of three, when asked to correctly identify sex in a set of photos where babies were either naked or clothed, had much more success labeling those who were clothed, suggesting that their knowledge of sex tended to rely on an understanding of cultural differences as opposed to anatomical differences (Bem, 1989). Overall, these examples should remind us that “who we are” is determined by a constant interplay of the social and the biological. Or, as I remarked upon previously, nature and nurture are inseparable.


Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: