Discuss Kohlberg's theory of gender development. (8 marks + 16 marks)

This question is asking you to outline and evaluate Kohlberg's cognitive developmental theory.


Kohlberg's concept of gender constancy comes from Piaget's ideas about cognitive development. Piaget proposed that children lack internal logic and are unable to distinguish between appearance and reality. Kohlberg related many of these ideas to gender development. Kohlberg believed that children actively structure their own experiences, rather than passive learning through observing and imitating. According to his theory, children acquire understanding of gender in three stages.

The first stage is gender labelling (2-3.5 years). At this stage children label themselves and others as girl or boy, but this is based only on outward appearance. An individual's gender can change with their appearance. For example, a person in a dress will be perceived to be female, even if this person was earlier perceived to be male. Piaget describes this as pre-operational (lacking internal logic).

The second stage is gender stability (3.5-4.5 years). Children recognise that gender is consistent over time, but not that it is consistent across situations. For example, a man may be seen to be female when doing a 'feminine activity'. Thus, these children are still swayed by outward appearance.

The third stage is gender consistency. Children understand that gender is constant over time and situations. Kohlberg believed that children would only be able to start learning about gender-appropriate behaviour at this stage, as up to this point they believed that gender could change.

There is support for the gender labelling stage. Rabban found that at the age of three, most children can identify their own gender but not what gender they would grow into. This demonstrates their weak grasp of gender stability, supporting Kohlberg's claim that children would not understand at this age that gender is stable.

Gender stability was investigated by Slaby and Frey, who asked young children what gender they were when they were younger and what gender they will be when they are older. Children did not recognise that these traits were stable over time until they were three or four years old, as Kohlberg predicted

Gender consistency was also considered by Slaby and Frey. Those children high in gender constancy (a combination of stability and consistency) showed greatest interest in same-sex models. This suggests, as Kohlberg predicted, that an increasing sense of constancy leads children to pay more attention to gender-appropriate behaviour.

McConaghy also found evidence to support the gender stability stage. This was done by showing children dolls dressed in transparent clothes with left their genitals visible. Children aged three to five used the clothes to identify gender, showing that they still use superficial indicators.

One problem with this study is the question of whether the researchers were actually testing what they intended to test. Bem demonstrated that it is genital knowledge rather than gender constancy which explains these findings. After doing a study similar to the previous one, many of the children who failed to display gender constancy also failed a genital knowledge test. This suggests that the previous study lacks internal validity, as the doll's genitals gave the children no useful information.

There may be a gender bias in this theory, as some critics claim that females are being judged using a male standard. This is largely because Kohlberg's original research, which he used as a basis for this model, was done only on males. Gender development happens differently in males than it does in females. For example, girls are generally more willing to do masculine activities than boys are to do feminine activities.

Further evidence against Kohlberg's theory has come from Bauer, who found boys to be more willing to imitate gender-matched roles from as early as two years old. This suggests that they are aware of gender roles far earlier than Kohlberg believed (around five to six years old).

These findings may be better explained by gender schema theory, which suggests that children begin to take on gender appropriate behaviours as soon as they are aware of their own gender (gender labelling). These finding may also be able to be explained biologically, as the boys' hormones may lead them to be more interested in masculine activities than in feminine activities.

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