This week a study was published on the emergence of gender stereotypes in early childhood and on how these stereotypes have a quick affect upon children’s interests.
The study included four experiments to test the children’s perceptions of brilliance and how this affected their interests. In one of them children were asked to identify who they thought was the intellectually brilliant protagonist of a story. At five years old children chose a protagonist of their own gender the majority of the time. At aged six to seven, all children were more likely to identify a male protagonist.
The study does not suggest why these gender stereotypes emerge at this age. But I’d speculate that the children’s ages are notable – at five years old these children will have just begun formal schooling. At five years old children are beginning to learn to read.
The majority of protagonists in children’s books are male. This holds true for stories where the main character is an animal (indeed animals are nearly always given male pronouns) and when animals are identified as female they are often drawn with gender signifiers. Such stories and accompanying illustrations enforce the notion of male as default, strengthening the associational learning of gender norms.
Associational learning is key to our socialisation in early childhood, and the imposition of gender norms begins immediately. The strict imposition of gendered clothing and toys, coupled with negative reactions for violating these norms, means that children are primed to notice and accept supposed gender difference and to see them as significant.
A child of five, just starting school and beginning to read, is therefore conditioned to see the protagonists of their stories as situated on either side of a gender binary, and to take their attributes as characteristic of their gender. Judging by books alone, boys are more likely to be seen as adventurous, inventive, brave, and competitive. Is it any wonder then that by aged seven girls are less likely to see themselves as such?
The lack of female representation is far from the only problem. People of colour are woefully underrepresented in children’s literature, as are LGBTQ families, and indeed any family that does not fit within the nuclear ideal. Children who do not see themselves reflected are denied role models, and cis white boys are never required to empathise with anyone different.
If we wish to have a more equal society this must be challenged. When choosing books for children we need to seek out books that centre on girls, on people of colour, on LGBTQ families. Because those who wish to maintain the status quo know that the socialisation of children is a vital fight. When the Daily Mail expresses outrage over a book with a transgender character, or at a book with a character who has gay parents, they do so to protect and strengthen cis- and hetero- normativity. They do so under the guise of ‘common sense’ and claim that children are ‘too young’ to understand. But socialisation is happening either way. To not actively teach your child that there is no such thing as a normal default human is to risk that they will not accept others and also sets limits to their own possibilities.
The societal acceptance of binary gender and gender roles are vital to the far right. If men are perceived to be more intelligent it is easier to push women back into the home, for men to make decisions about women’s bodies. When people of colour are not represented in our literature and our media it is easier to identify them as ‘other’, as ‘outsiders’. When the same is done to LGBTQ people and relationships it is easier to label them ‘deviant’. We cannot permit this to happen – we must take an active role in ensuring the current norms are challenged.
And so when choosing children’s book look beyond those with white male protagonists, and when you read aloud change characters’ pronouns. If you have book recommendations, share them – I’ve started a list below, I’d love to know of many more before my nieces and nephews have their birthdays…
[Importantly, remember it’s not only children’s books that are dominated by cis white male characters (and authors) – so vary your own reading too.]
Amazing Grace – Mary Hoffman
Handa’s Surprise – Eileen Brown
Rosie’s Hat – Julia Donaldson
And Tango Makes Three – Justin Richardson
 The paper does not make any mention of gender nonconforming children.