Gender Schema Theory

Gender Schema Theory

Are you a little dismayed that your preschool-aged daughter wants to take a Princess class or that your preschool-aged son wants to take a Superheroes class? Does this get you thinking about gender stereotypes and sexism? If so, that is perfectly understandable. But so is your child’s inclination.

Up until about three years of age, children’s understanding of sex is rather superficial. They think you can go back and forth between male and female as a result of changes in things like clothing and hairstyle. Wear a skirt, you’re a girl. Change to pants, now you’re a boy. Have long hair, you’re a girl. Get it cut short, now you’re a boy. But eventually “gender constancy” kicks in. They realize you are one or the other and it isn’t going to change.

That leads to what is referred to as “gender schema theory.” Once they realize they are one or the other and it is permanent, it becomes important to them that there be a difference and that they be on the winning side. So if I’m a little boy and I realize I’ll always be a boy, it becomes important to me that there be a difference between boy stuff and girl stuff, and that boy stuff is cool and girl stuff isn’t. Similarly, if I’m a little girl, it becomes important to me that there be a difference between boy stuff and girl stuff, and that girl stuff is great and boy stuff is icky. Consequently, the children themselves are strongly inclined to pursue and perpetuate the traditional gender roles of their culture.

It is very difficult and perhaps even impossible to defeat this powerful inclination. So my advice is to go ahead and indulge it. Let your kid be psychologically comfortable at this point in his or her life. And if that makes you a little uncomfortable, the more practical and ultimately more effective solution is to devote your efforts to altering your culture’s ideas about traditional gender roles.

Michael K. Meyerhoff, Ed.D. (a.k.a. “Dr. Mike”) is a member of the management team at Romp n’ Roll. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Columbia University, he earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in human development from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he also held a position as a researcher with the Harvard Preschool Project. He may be contacted via e-mail at