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When a child is born, perhaps the first question one will ask is: “Is it a boy or a girl?”, and the answer to this question will, in many ways, shape that child’s future in terms of their treatment by others, their role in society and their own self concept. But by what means do these things, particularly the latter aspect, occur? How do children become aware of their own gender identity and that of others, and to what extent does this awareness direct their behaviour?

Initial interest in gender development mainly focussed on stimulus-response reinforcement of behaviour. In essence those in the child’s social environment (primarily parents) were thought to reward gender consistent behaviour and punish behaviour that was inconsistent (Bandura, 1969). In this manner boys would be encouraged to engage in ‘boy-ish’ pastimes, such as rough-and-tumble play and playing with blocks and trucks but inhibited in behaviour that could be classed as feminine such as crying or asking for help. Conversely, girls would be encouraged in feminine play and behaviour, being given toys such as dolls and talking about feelings, but discouraged from masculine behaviour such climbing trees or being overly independent.

Clearly one of the ways to evaluate this theory is to consider the extent to which parents actually do treat their children differently depending on their gender. A large review of the literature to date was undertaken by Maccoby and Jacklin (1974) who concluded that there was relatively little evidence that parents were making this male/female distinction in their treatment of their children, although other authors have suggested that they may have missed subtle differences in treatment by concentrating on broad categories (e.g. Malim & Birch, 1998). Other authors have found differences such as boys more often being offered trucks and blocks and being encouraged to engage in more physical activity, where girls are offered dolls (Smith & Lloyd, 1978), or that boys and girls are reinforced in gender appropriate behaviours particularly by their fathers, and with particular paternal disapproval being shown if their sons engage in ‘feminine’ activities (Langlois & Downs, 1980).

However, it has also been shown that nursery school teachers reinforce ‘feminine’ behaviours such as quite play and remaining near an adult in both boys and girls (Fagot, 1985), but that this reinforcement is less effective for boys, particularly when they are already engaged in masculine activities such as rough-and-tumble playing.

Additionally, as Maccoby (2000) points out, when parents do treat their children differently in light of their gender, it is hard to say whether this is because they are training their child to behave in gender appropriate ways, or if conversely the child prefers gender-typical behaviour and is in a sense ‘training’ his parent to treat him