Stereotyping of sex role in children researched
By Liz Lockhart
New research from Germany has produced some surprising results. Prejudices are cultivated from early childhood by everyone according to the study. Such stereotypes include assumptions that girls are not as good at playing football as boys are and that they don’t know anything about cars, however, they dance better and don’t get into trouble as often as boys!
‘Approximately at the age of three to four years children start to prefer children of the same sex, and later the same ethnic group or nationality,’ says Professor Dr. Andreas Beelmann of the Friedrich Schiller University Jena.
Beelmann explains that this is part of an entirely normal personality development ‘It only gets problematic when the more positive evaluation of their own social group which is adopted automatically in the course of identity formation, at some point reverts into bias and discrimination against others.
The Jena psychologist and his team have been producing a prevention programme for children. This is aimed at reducing prejudice and to encourage tolerance for others.
When is the right time to start?
Dr. Tobias Raabe and Professor Dr. Beelman summarise scientific studies on that subject and published the findings of their research in the science journal ‘Child Development’.
The results show that the development of prejudice increases steadily at pre-school age and reaches its climax between five and seven years of age. The prejudices decline with increasing age. Beelmann says ‘This reflects normal cognitive development of children. At first they adopt the social categories from their social environment mainly their parents. Then they start to build up their own social identity according to social groups, before they finally learn to differentiate and individual evaluations of others will prevail over stereotypes.’ The psychologists, therefore, feel that this age is the ideal time to start well-designed prevention programmes against prejudice.
Beelmann says ‘Prevention starting at that age supports the normal course of development.’ The study, along with the experience of the Jena psychologists with their prevention programme, show that the prejudices are strongly diminished at primary school age. At about this time children have interaction with social groups such as children of a different nationality or skin colour.
‘This also works when they don’t even get in touch with real people, but learn it instead via books or told stories. But at the same time the primary school age is a critical time for prejudices to consolidate. If there is no or only a few contact to members of social out groups, there is no personal experience to be made and generalising negative evaluations stick longer,’ Beelmann says.
During this study the psychologists noticed that social ideas and prejudices are formed differently in children of social minorities. To start with, they do not have a negative attitude towards the majority, more commonly it is a positive one. Later after experiencing discrimination, they develop prejudices that then stay with them. Beelman feel sure that ‘In this case prevention has to start earlier so it doesn’t even get that far.’