Coincidence is glorious fun sometimes! Just this week, I’ve been working with my grad students on how children develop their first understandings of gender identity during the ages of 3ish to 6ish. And along came this lovely conversation before storytime between me and a 4 year old boy.

He’s looking at a poster we have up for a showing of the new Chipmunk movie. Unprompted he begins talking to me.

Boy: Those are The Chipmunks.

Me: Yes, they are.

(He thinks for a bit.)

Boy: Those (pointing to the top of the picture) are the boy chipmunks. Those (pointing to the bottom of the picture) are the girl ones.

Me: Yes, there are boy chipmunks and girl chipmunks.

Boy (looking me right in the eye): Are you a girl?

Me: Yes, I’m a girl. (At the time I’m dressed in jeans and a purple shirt with a flower pattern on it. I have fairly short hair.)

Me: And are you a boy?

Boy: Yes, I’m a boy!

Me: And mama?

Boy: She’s a girl. (He says this very proudly, as if he really “knows” something important here.)

Then he wanders off.

We don’t find it hard to understand when children between one and two are trying to figure out the differences between a cat and a dog—and it doesn’t concern us when they “get it wrong” at first. Children look for and form a pattern (or schema) and “use it” to identify what something is—until they come across a new piece that doesn’t fit. Then they have to change the schema and it becomes more accurate.

We often get uncomfortable, though, when we see and hear them going through the same process concerning gender. We worry when they “get it wrong.” While in process, they might say quite strongly, “only girls can wear pink,” “boys don’t play with babies,” or “mamas and daddies are always married.” These are all characteristics they’ve picked out to form their initial patterns for what a girl/woman is and what a boy/man is. As they explore their world more, just like with cats and dogs, their schema changes and develops. With opportunities to play and explore and with exposure to lots of different people, their schemas become more and more accurate.

So when children declare “boys/girls ONLY….” at this age, don’t panic! They are not growing into narrow minded little adults. They are growing children. Just think back to their days of learning cats and dogs. “Dogs are bigger than cats!” A simple “Yes, many dogs are bigger than cats” affirms what they have figured out and learned. You might add, “And there are some dogs that are smaller than cats.” But unless you’ve got an example right in front of you, don’t expect much of a reaction! 🙂 Model your responses about gender similarly. “Girls have long hair” “Yes, many girls do have long hair.” Opportunities will come for further learnings as life goes on!

Finally, what, pray tell, does this have to do with books? Well, we can go overboard with our concerns, misinterpreting normal development for gender stereotypes–and then we push books into service for which they were not intended and is not needed. We do need to provide children with gender aware books and stories, rather than gender biased ones.  We do need books that show girls doing many different things and boys doing many different things.  But we  shortchange kids when we show only the either/or: either the traditional roles or the non-traditional roles but not both.  Providing both gives children the widest view of the marvelous variety and uniqueness of each individual.

So we provide good grist for the their mills and they develop in their own way and time.