by Nancy Zwiers
It’s tempting to blame gender-marketing for “causing” children’s intolerance of atypical gender behavior, but is that what is really happening?
Neuroscientists tell us the way the brain wires itself is grounded in categorization. As children, and as adults, we make sense of the world through establishing categories and assigning the things we encounter to its respective category. Children are concrete and understand things in black and white—with no shades of gray (let alone 50). They don’t develop a nuanced understanding of anything until the black and white categories are firmly established in their brains.
Consistent with this, young children have very rigid ideas about gender. They understand “Girl” and “Boy” and demand that all girls fit with their budding conception of what “A Girl” is and all boys fit with their concept of “A Boy.” Between the ages of 3-7, when children are developing a sense of their gender identity, this rigidity is at its most extreme. As an example, many of us know little girls who were once happy to wear pants and who at age 3 or 4 all of a sudden reject pants and insist on dresses. But as we all know, girls eventually outgrow this rigidity.
The older children get, however, the more they are able to understand behavior and appearance that deviates from their once rigid concepts. Once they master black and white categorization, they are able to develop a more sophisticated understanding about everything. Further, empathy arises from higher order brain processes (i.e. it is later to develop) and empathy is needed before people can tolerate those who are different. Of course, parents can somewhat accelerate the development of empathy.
Both amore nuanced understanding of categories and empathy help older children generate a wider repertoire of behavior themselves, and develop tolerance for a wider range of behavior in others.