Negativity towards gender nonconforming children is a significant child development problem. Peer relations correlate strongly with later social and emotional development. Interventions seeking to reduce this negativity are important.

After showing that gender nonconforming children are less popular with their peers. researchers in Hong Kongrecently  tested an intervention that successfully changed perceptions for the better, albeit only measured in the short-term and in a laboratory setting rather than in real life.

The research was divided into two studies. The first looked at how children rated their gender conforming and gender nonconforming peers. The second assessed the difference after an intervention designed to alter perceptions of gender nonconforming peers.

Study 1: How children rate conforming and gender nonconforming peers

This study involved 104 4- to 5-year-olds and 106 8- to 9-year-olds (50/50 boy/girl).

The study found:

  • A general preference by children at both ages for gender conforming peers compared to gender nonconforming peers.
  • The strengthening of these preferences as children get older, possibly related to the fact that same-gender peer preference peaks in middle childhood.
  • Greater variation of response to gender nonconforming peers of the other gender. Eight- to 9-year-old boys actually showed some preference towards gender nonconforming girls compared to gender conforming girls.
  • A particular dislike of gender nonconforming boys by both girls and boys of both ages. Much other research has found less positive attitudes towards gender nonconforming boys than towards nonconforming girls. Perhaps this is because masculine behavior has higher social status generally, and seeking higher status (gender nonconforming girls) is regarded as more acceptable than seeking lower status (gender nonconforming boys).

The children were shown on-screen vignettes of four individuals: a gender conforming boy and girl and a gender nonconforming boy and girl. Each vignette consisted of five pictures, each with a 15-second audio narrative. The pictures showed the child’s preferences for toys, activities, clothing and hairstyle, and gender of playmates. The preferences of the gender conforming boy and gender nonconforming girl were the same, and similarly for the gender conforming girl and gender nonconforming boy.

After viewing the pictures, the children were asked seven questions:

  1. Friendship preference: Would you like being friends with <name>? (Yes/Don’t Know/No – 🙂😐🙁)
  2. Perceived popularity: Do you think other children would like to be friends with <name>? (Yes/Don’t Know/No – 🙂😐🙁)
  3. Emotion perception: Do you think <name> is happy? (Yes/Don’t Know/No – 🙂😐🙁)
  4. Activity preference: Would you like to do what <name> did in the story? (Yes/Don’t Know/No – 🙂😐🙁)
  5. Moral judgement: Was what <name> was doing in the story right? (Yes/Don’t Know/No – 🙂😐🙁)
  6. Sharing behavior: Distribute 10 stickers to the four children in any way you wish. This exercise reflects the fact that sharing is a show of friendliness among children and that time must be shared between peers.
  7. Ranking: Rank the four children from your favourite to least favourite.

The answers to the questions showed a complex array of preferences. All these findings are averages.

4- to 5-year-old girls

  • The younger girls rated gender conforming girls higher than gender nonconforming girls – preferred them as friends, perceived them as more popular, judged their actions as more moral, shared more stickers with them, ranked them higher. Only in relation to preferred activity did they rate gender conforming and gender nonconforming girls the same.
  • Their preferences regarding boys were more varied. They preferred gender conforming boys as friends over gender nonconforming boys. They preferred the activity of the gender nonconforming boy over the gender conforming boy and they shared stickers equally between the boys.
  • They ranked gender nonconforming boys lower than gender nonconfirming girls.

8- to 9-year-old girls

  • The older girls rated gender conforming girls higher than gender nonconforming girls – preferred them as friends, perceived them as more popular, preferred their activity, judged their actions as more moral, shared more stickers with them and ranked them higher. In all but the first of these cases, the preference was stronger than shown by younger girls.
  • Regarding boys, they showed no friendship preference between gender conforming and gender nonconforming boys, nor did they prefer the activities of one over the other. They shared stickers equally between the boys.
  • They ranked gender nonconforming boys lower than gender nonconforming girls, more extremely than younger girls did.

4- to 5-year-old boys

  • The younger boys rated gender conforming boys higher than gender nonconforming boys – preferred them as friends, perceived them as more popular, preferred their activity, judged their actions as more moral, shared more stickers with them, ranked them higher.
  • Regarding girls, their preferences were more varied. They preferred gender conforming girls as friends over gender nonconforming girls, perceived them as more popular, and judged their actions as more moral. But they showed no preference between their activities, and did not share stickers differently.
  • They ranked gender nonconforming boys lower than gender nonconforming girls.

8- to 9-year-old boys

  • The older boys rated gender conforming boys higher than gender nonconforming boys – preferred them as friends, perceived them as more popular, preferred their activity, judged their actions as more moral, shared more stickers with them and ranked them higher. In all but the first of these, the preference was stronger than shown by younger boys.
  • Regarding girls, they actually preferred gender nonconforming girls as friends over gender conforming girls, preferred their activity and shared stickers equally between them.
  • They ranked gender nonconforming boys lower than gender nonconforming girls, more extremely than younger boys did. They also preferred the activity of gender nonconforming girls over that of boys and would prefer a gender nonconforming girl as a friend rather than a gender nonconforming boy.

Study 2: The effect of an intervention to tackle negative responses to gender nonconforming boys and girls

The second study worked with 221 8- to 9-year-olds, who participated in an intervention designed to address negative reactions to gender nonconforming children. The older group was chosen because negative reactions are stronger in this age group. Also, earlier research has shown that similarly designed racial stereotype interventions work better with children of this age than with younger children.

The intervention was a three-minute slideshow with audio narrative which showed children who both violated some gender stereotypes and conformed in others. All these children were portrayed as having lots of friends, being good at catching caterpillars and achieving good grades in school.

The children were then asked the same questions as in the first study, except for the second one about popularity (since all the children in the slideshow were presented as popular).

The intervention changed some ways that 8- and 9-year-old boys and girls viewed gender nonconforming children. Compared to the control group, both boys and girls showed greater preference for the activities of gender nonconforming children, rated their actions as more moral, shared more stickers with them and ranked them higher. In relation to friendship preference, the only change was a more positive rating by boys for gender nonconforming boys.

As with similarly designed interventions targeting racial stereotypes among children, knowledge of individuals’ own characteristics may help to break down stereotyped categorisations of out-of-group people. This may go further to break down stereotypical perceptions about the whole group from which the individual comes. Another possibility is that showing similarities simply promotes liking.

Negative reactions to gender nonconforming children is a child development issue

Most children distinguish between males and females by the age of two. Gender nonconformity takes many forms, and an individual child can display both gender conforming and gender nonconforming behaviors in different activities and parts of their lives. Earlier research has shown that strongly gender nonconforming children are less popular; this phenomenon can start to appear among 3-year-olds. Earlier research has also shown that gender nonconforming boys are more prone to rejection than gender nonconforming girls.

Most studies show that as children grow into middle childhood, they become more negative about gender nonconformity. This is a time when peer group activity is most gender segregated.

Negativity towards gender nonconforming children is a significant child development problem. Peer relations correlate strongly with later social and emotional development. This justifies the development of interventions that seek to reduce peer bias against children who do not conform to gender stereotypes, similar to programmes that have been set up to tackle racial stereotypes.

Header photo: joebart. Creative Commons. 

References

 Kwan KMW, Shi SY, Nabbijohn AN, MacMullin LN, VanderLaan DP & Wong WI (2019), Children’s appraisals of gender nonconformity: Developmental pattern and intervention, Child Development