image by Franklin Park Library (lic)Children's gender identity (e.g., their ideas about what it means to be a boy or girl, and how notions of gender apply to them) develops in complexity during the middle childhood years. At this developmental moment, children have become aware of gender stereotypes having to do with how boys and girls are "supposed" to think and act. Correspondingly, children start to identify certain activities and abilities as being characteristically "masculine" or "feminine". This new awareness may affect their willingness to engage in behaviors not characteristic of their own gender, even if they previously used to enjoy those behaviors. For example, kids might tell you that boys are better at sports, mathematics, and mechanics while girls are better at reading, art, music, and spelling. They might also report that assertiveness and competitiveness are masculine traits, while being affectionate or soft-spoken are more feminine qualities.
Even though children at this age will define masculine and feminine roles in fairly concrete and absolute terms, they will not always choose to act out gender-appropriate behaviors. Many children feel empowered to explore all types of activities and roles, which allows them to be more flexible in terms of how they describe themselves. For example, girls may want to learn how to build a bookshelf with Dad, and boys may enjoy baking cookies with Grandmother. As they try new activities, children typically become more flexible in their beliefs concerning what boys and girls, and men and women are allowed to do.
Interestingly, boys' and girls' gender identities seem to develop differently during middle childhood. Boys tend to use more masculine traits to describe themselves, to behave in more stereotypically masculine ways, and to cultivate (but not necessarily achieve) a more concentrated and pure masculine identity free of feminine attributes. In contrast, many girls at this age will tend to be more androgynous in their self-descriptions, endorsing and embracing both feminine and masculine traits and behaviors.
There is research support for the idea that children (boys and girls both) who develop more flexible, androgynous gender identities are ultimately better prepared to cope with life stress throughout childhood and into adulthood than are peers who develop more rigid, pure-feminine or pure-masculine gender identities. However, many parents are uncomfortable encouraging their children to embrace androgyny, and it is not clear that it is practical for parents to do this anyway given that children will have their own ideas about who they are and what they like by this point.
The question of whether parents should encourage cross-stereotyped play is currently a hotly debated issue within research circles. Some experts contend that parental encouragement of children's gender stereotyped play encourage children to retain rigid gender stereotyped role expectations of themselves and others as they grow to become adults. In other words, the act of discouraging a little girl from playing with "boy's toys" may encourage her to develop a lasting belief that "real women" should only engage in feminine-specific activities such as taking care of families. Similarly, the act of discouraging little boys from playing with dolls might convince him that men should only do tough, physical work and avoid nurturant activities. This view is opposed by other experts who content that there is no harm done in encouraging (or allowing) children to play in a gender-stereotyped fashion as this will not substantially affect their ability as adults to think about gender roles in more flexible ways. To this point, research studies designed to clarify this issue and provide parents with better guidance are inconclusive, having produced evidence supportive of both positions.
Though we are not in a position to advise parents how to handle children's gender stereotyped behavior during middle childhood, we can provide information about the biological and environmental factors affecting the development of children's gender-identity.