A briefing paper prepared by Heidi Gansen, Northwestern University, and Karin Martin, University of Michigan for the Council on Contemporary Families’ Gender Matters Online Symposium (.pdf).

Children are gendered by parents before they are born. What does that mean? As soon as parents know if “it’s a boy!” or “it’s a girl!” they start to imagine different children and childhoods. From birth, children are treated differently by gender and learn to “do” their gender from families, peers, school, and media. Parents and families buy different clothes and toys for boys and girls and decorate their rooms differently. Observers ascribe different traits (e.g. tough, brave) to a baby that is assumed to be a boy (even if it’s not) than to a baby perceived to be a girl.

We don’t even know we are doing this.

Things we do not think of as constructing gender differences do, as we write in “Becoming Gendered” in the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender. For example, preschools are heightened incubators of gender difference. Preschool teachers have differential responses to boys’ and girls’ behaviors, such as permitting informal behaviors for boys (lying down during circle time; loudness) and requiring more formal school behaviors for girls (indoor voices; sitting up straight).

Except when we do.

In some preschools, the curriculum is explicitly gendered. Beginning in preschool, some teachers see instructing children about their gender’s behavioral expectations or responsibilities as an explicit component of their curriculum and teaching practices. In work forthcoming in Sex Roles, Gansen interviewed and observed teachers in three preschools (nine preschool classrooms total). She found that teachers in the three preschools disciplined boys and girls differently and created gendered stories to account for and justify their gendered beliefs, expectations, and disciplinary practices.

For example, in all three preschools that Gansen observed, when girls were not following teacher instructions to clean up, girls were disciplined by having to clean up an area by themselves. In one classroom, if there was nothing left for girls to clean up, teachers would have a child or teacher dump a container of toys on the floor. These dumped-out toys were then the girls’ “responsibility” to clean up on their own. However, in none of the nine classrooms that Gansen observed did teachers discipline boys by having them clean up without assistance from their peers or a teacher. Instead, teachers in these nine classrooms frequently asked other children (almost always girls) to help boys clean up.

In another classroom, the teachers had boys do push-ups when they were physically fighting or being aggressive with their classmates. The teacher would ask the boys involved to take a break, come to the middle of the classroom, and do five push-ups. This teacher held gendered expectations for children’s behavior. She viewed boys as having physical energy they needed to release, and she implemented a gendered disciplinary practice (push-ups) to accommodate what she perceived as a behavioral “need” for preschool-aged boys. By contrast, in all nine classrooms, teachers immediately sent girls to timeout or moved them to a different play activity when they engaged in physical behaviors.

Freeing children from boy vs girl discipline creates stronger individuals.

Beginning in preschool, disciplinary interactions between teachers and students guide the construction of gender difference in young children. Gendered expectations and differential treatment of children at the young ages of three to five years old create and maintain gender inequality by constructing gender differences as natural, normal, and unchangeable. Perhaps if we change our gendered expectations and disciplinary responses to boys’ and girls’ behaviors in various contexts, such as at home and in school, we will open the door for children’s identities to be shaped in more individualized, and less gendered, ways.


Heidi M. Gansen, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow, School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University, hgansen@umich.eduKarin A. Martin, Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology, University of Michigan, kamartin@umich.eduThey are authors of “Becoming Gendered,” in the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender