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(2000) Feminist phenomenology, Dordrecht, Springer.

Understanding children's gender beliefs

Ann Johnson

pp. 133-151

The child—what can she tell us about gender? Or, for that matter, about feminism or phenomenology? In psychology, there is a large body of research devoted to understanding children's gender concepts. There have been some attempts by feminist psychologists to examine the thoughts and concepts of the young child from a feminist perspective—for instance, by looking at how patriarchal values get incorporated into the child's emerging gender "schema" (e.g., Bem 1981). However, as in most psychological theories regarding gender, there is an implicit definition of gender difference that rests on a simplified biological foundation. That is, the "truth" about gender difference is said to be rooted in natural, biological categories. So small children, who know little about biology, but a lot about human behavior, are said to have beliefs about gender that are pre-logical or pre-rational—meaning that they do not yet construct their ideas about gender on the "true" and stable foundation of biological knowledge. A young preschooler, for example, might tell you that if a girl puts on boys' clothes, she would be a boy. The child "mistakenly" uses cultural cues (like hair length or clothing) to determine gender instead of rooting a person's gender classification in biological criteria (e.g., genitals, chromosomes; Bem 1989). Development of gender concepts in childhood, even in these feminist accounts, is explained within a progressivist framework: The young child has ideas about gender that are stereotyped, perhaps amusing, but mistaken; their errors in thinking about gender are gradually eliminated as they approximate the adult-like, biological point of view. The child's picture of gender is said to be faulty, while the adult view reflects an accurate representation of gender as a biological phenomenon.

Publication details

DOI: 10.1007/978-94-015-9488-2_8

Full citation:

Johnson, A. (2000)., Understanding children's gender beliefs, in L. Fisher & L. Embree (eds.), Feminist phenomenology, Dordrecht, Springer, pp. 133-151.

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