Photo by oddharmonic, Flickr CC

In the United States we tend to think children develop sexuality in adolescence, but new research by Heidi Gansen shows that children learn rules and beliefs associated with romantic relationships and sexuality much earlier. Gansen spent over 400 hours in nine different classrooms in three Michigan preschools. She observed behavior from teachers and students during daytime classroom hours and concluded that children learn — via teachers’ practices — that heterosexual relationships are normal and that boys and girls have very different roles to play in them. 

In some classrooms, teachers actively encouraged “crushes” and kissing between boys and girls. Teachers assumed that any form of affection between opposite gender children was romantically-motivated and these teachers talked about the children as if they were in a romantic relationship, calling them “boyfriend/girlfriend.” On the other hand, the same teachers interpreted affection between children of the same gender as friendly, but not romantic. Children reproduced these beliefs when they played “house” in these classrooms. Rarely did children ever suggest that girls played the role of “dad” or boys played the role of “mom.” If they did, other children would propose a character they deemed more gender-appropriate like a sibling or a cousin.

Preschoolers also learned that boys have power over girls’ bodies in the classroom. In one case, teachers witnessed a boy kiss a girl on the cheek without permission. While teachers in some schools enforced what the author calls “kissing consent” rules, the teachers in this school interpreted the kiss as “sweet” and as the result of a harmless crush. Teachers also did not police boys’ sexual behaviors as actively as girls’ behaviors. For instance, when girls pulled their pants down teachers disciplined them, while teachers often ignored the same behavior from boys. Thus, children learned that rules for romance also differ by gender.