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By Chloe Derby 13AGO
Discuss Kohlberg's theory of gender development (24 marks)
Lawrence Kohlberg's concept of gender constancy comes from Piaget's suggestion that young
children cannot distinguish between appearance and reality. For example young children believe that
a person must be a girl if they are wearing a dress i.e. they judge by appearance. When young
children are shown a line drawing of a child where the male genitals are visible through the dress,
children under the age of five judge the doll to be female because of its external appearance.
(McConaghy, 1979). Kohlberg's gender constancy theory holds that changes in gender thinking are
solely the outcome of changes in a child's cognitive capabilities as the child gets older. Children
naturally progress from one stage to the next as they mature, though this progression is a gradual
process rather than one of sudden transition.
The first stage, gender identity, is where the first and most simple concept that the child has to
grasp relates to their own sex that of a girl or boy. Between the age of 2 and 3½, the young child
starts to use the label `boy' or `girl' to refer to themselves and then to other people. However the
child of this age has a very limited understanding of what it means to be a girl or a boy and does not
understand that gender is stable. The second stage, gender stability, is when the child reaches about
3½ and they begin to realise that their own sex will not change. Whilst a 2 year old will seriously claim
that he is a boy but is going to be a mummy when he grows up, the 4 year old knows that he will
grow up to be a male and become a daddy if he becomes a parent. However, the child of 4 or 5
years old is still misled by superficial changes to appearance, and may believe that sudden changes in
appearance (such as head shaving) may lead to a woman to become a man. The last stage, gender
constancy, happens between 4½ and 7 years of age, where the child works out that gender is
constant that is, that people stay the same gender despite superficial changes in their appearance.
Whilst the 3 year old might feel that Britney Spears with a shaved head has turned into a man, the 6
year old would not fall into that trap.
Evidence has shown that Kohlberg's stages occur in the order and at the ages he suggested.
McConaghy (1979) found that children aged 3½ to 4 tended to use hair length and clothes to decide
upon the sex of a doll, rather than genitals.
Slaby and Frey (1975) studied children aged between 2 and 5 who were divided into high- and
low-gender constancy groups. They were shown a silent film in which two adult models one male
and one female carried out simple stereotyped role activities. The children's eye movements and
directions of gaze were recorded to assess which model they looked at most. Slaby and Frey found
that the child with a high-gender constancy spent more time watching the same-sex model,
supporting Kohlberg's claim that children pay attention to same-sex models after the stage of
constancy has been reached.
However, a major problem for Kohlberg's theory is that sex-typing is already well underway
before the child acquires a mature gender identity. For example, 2 year old boys prefer masculine
toys before they have even become aware that these are more appropriate for boys, and Kuhn et al
(1978) and Maccoby (1980) found that 3 year olds have learned many gender-role stereotypes and
already prefer same-sex activities or playmates long before they begin to attend selectively to
Whilst Kohlberg's theory provided the basis for thinking about children's understanding of
gender, theorists such as Bem (1981) and Martin and Halverson (1981) have argued that children
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By Chloe Derby 13AGO
start to construct schemas about gender by the age of around 2 and that it is these schemas which
drive gender role behaviour.
It could be argued that the gender constancy theory is a rather reductionist approach to the
study of gender development. This means that, in an attempt to isolate and study particular causal
factors such as a child's cognitive capabilities, some wider picture may have been lost.…read more