Essay on Kohlberg's theory

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Outline and evaluate one or more cognitive developmental theories of gender
development. (25 marks)
Psychologists have considered many explanations of gender development in an attempt to
understand how our awareness of gender emerges and the effect it has on our behaviour and on those
around us.
One of the main theories in this field was developed by Kohlberg as an extension of earlier
research by Piaget. His theory emphasises how a child develops both an understanding of gender and
gender appropriate behaviour this increases with age.
This theory is based around three "stages of gender identity development." It states children's
discovery of whether they are male or female helps them to identify with other members of the same sex
this is differs from other theories such as the Social Learning Theory and the psychoanalytic theory which
suggest it is the other way round.
The first stage is known as `Gender labelling' and occurs when the child is between 2 and 3.5
years old. It is at this stage that the child becomes aware of their own sex as male or female. This enables
them to categorise others also but the information is fragile and they don't yet have the understanding that it
is permanent boys will always become men and girls will invariably become women.
The second stage is known as `Gender stability' and occurs between 3.5 and 4.5 years old. At
this age children can normally recognise that people retain their gender for a lifetime, however they still rely
on superficial signs to determine gender such as hair length or clothes. They still understand gender as
situational dependant.
The third stage and final stage in the development of gender identity is known as `Gender
consistency' and is achieved by around the age of 4.5 to 7 years. This is when children realise gender is
immutable. This means gender is conserved regardless or time or situation so even if a woman cuts her very
short she will still remain female.
Once gender consistency has been achieved the child will become aware of attitudes and
behaviours that are gender appropriate. They find that acting in these ways are rewarding and selffulfilling
and so this behaviour is reinforced. Kohlberg famously stated in 1966, "I am a boy, therefore I want to
do boy things, therefore the opportunity to do boy things (and gain approval for doing them) ... is
rewarding." At this stage they also begin to identify with adults who possess the qualities they see as being
most important to being male or female themselves.
Evidence suggests that the basis of Kohlberg's theory seems correct. Thompson (1975) found
children demonstrated behaviour consistent with Kohlberg's stages. Children aged 23 could apply gender
labels correctly to themselves and others which is consistent with Kohlberg's `Gender identity' stage.
There is also cross cultural evidence supporting the theory as found by Monroe et al. (1984)
finding the same sequences of stages.
Sably and Frey (1975) investigated the age at which children reached Kohlberg's `gender
consistency' stage. They showed support for the sequential order of his stages but raised questions over
this factor as well as differences between boys and girls when attending to same sex models. They divided
25 year olds into `high' and `low' gender consistency groups. The children were shown a silent film of
adults performing simple activities with the screen split with males performing the activity on one side and
females on the other. Children with `high' gender consistency ratings showed a greater tendency to attend
to the same sex models, measured by the amount of visual attention given to each side of the screen. This
supports Kohlberg's idea that gender consistency is a cause of imitation of the same sex rather than effect
of such behaviour. However, children may hold strong stereotypes about the power of the male model and
so may imitate males more.

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There is a major problem with Kohlberg's theory by which it predicts there is little or no gender
appropriate behaviour before gender consistency is achieved. Yet in reality gender role behaviour is shown
by most boys and girls by their second birthday which according to Kohlberg is several years before
stage 3 is achieved. This suggests that gender consistency may be established earlier but the infants are
unable to verbalise this due to limitations on language.…read more


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