Socialization of Toddlers

In last weekend's post about arguments from innate differences, I suggested that I might be willing to illustrate my position with adorable toddler pictures. On thinking more about it, I'm a little hesitant to write about this at length, because it could easily topple over into arrogant-physicist territory. But then, it's an excuse to post adorable toddler pictures, so...

So, let me put a short disclaimer up front: I'm not attempting to claim that I have suddenly uncovered a unique and obvious flaw in innate-difference arguments, by virtue of my Big Physicist Brain. I am well aware that the issues I'll mention are known within the community of people who study these kinds of things. I also know just enough to know that there's still some controversy around this kind of stuff, so I feel somewhat justified in picking one side of the questions at issue.

Anyway, the article I was arguing with last week is, as I said, making a scientific claim that women and men operate in different ways, and that these differences are innate and biological in origin. Of course, the big confounding factor here is socialization-- namely, teasing out which elements of the differences between the sexes are really innate, and which are just byproducts of the culture we live in, which tends to push the two sexes in different directions. A common way around this (in theory) is to use young children as the test subjects, on the theory that they have not had time to be thoroughly indoctrinated in one manner of behavior.

I'm a little skeptical of this approach, because I think there's good evidence that socialization starts really early, and unconsciously. To illustrate this, consider the following movie of SteelyKid treating one of her many stuffed animals as a baby:

The extreme gender-essentialist view of this would be that this is evidence of the nurturing tendencies of the female brain, SteelyKid being female. The early-socialization counterargument would be that SteelyKid by that time had already been in day care for around a year, and thus spent a lot of time watching adults change the diapers on other babies. So of course, when she started imitating adult behavior, it took the form of treating some toy as a baby.

I am, obviously, inclined toward this second view of things, and as plural anecdotes in support of my view, I offer the following two pictures:



The first of these has previously appeared on the blog, and shows SteelyKid sitting in the big read recliner in the living room with a Jeremiah Healy paperback she picked up off the bookshelves in the bedroom. This was at a point where we didn't really read to her, but she saw us reading all the time.

The second is SteelyKid on the floor of the library, playing with a discarded keyboard that we gave her in an attempt to keep her from pounding on Kate's keyboard. This is a room which is bookended by computers-- I sit at the front of the room, with my desk right in front of the windows, and Kate sits at the back of the room, next to the kitchen. It's fairly common, then, for all three of us to be banging on keyboards at the same time, in the same room.

Do these imply the existence of some genetic predisposition to reading and blogging? No, of course not. They just show that she tends to imitate the adults around her. This isn't conscious, either-- we certainly haven't made any concerted effort to teach her to enjoy poking at computer keyboards.

(If you want further confounding evidence, while it's true that some of SteelyKid's first play patterns were sorta-kinda stereotypically female (treating the stuffed duck and the Lorax as "babies"), another of her earliest phrases was "Truck! VROOM VROOM!" and she continues to have a fascination with transportation machinery that doesn't come from either of her parents.)

Anyway, that's why I'm highly skeptical of the notion that men and women are really innately predisposed to working in ways that just happen to align with the predominant cultural roles of the two sexes. Even small kids have had plenty of time to be socialized into certain ways of behaving, and that has the potential to badly skew all the results suggesting innate differences in behavior.

Again, I am not claiming to have come up with anything incredibly novel here-- I'm well aware that this is a Known Problem in the field. I also have the impression that the whole business is still unsettled enough that it's reasonable to choose either side, and this is the position that my anecdotal experience pushes me toward.


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I agree with you, babies absorb all kinds of influences early on, and they imitate the actions they see. For instance, in a BBC's documentary about people with OCD, there was a mother worried that her son might be learning her compulsiveness towards cleaning things, washing her hands for a long time and again and again etc when she saw him pretending he was washing his hands just like she did.

SteelyKid is adorable btw. :)

I think there's good evidence that socialization starts really early, and unconsciously.

And in case the evidence in this post isn't enough, there is your observation, first posted when SteelyKid was about half her current age, that clothes for female babies and toddlers tend toward frilly pink princess stuff, which you and Kate dislike intensely (for good reason).

I think you're right that this is a case of a kid imitating the adults around her. I don't think she knows yet that there are expected gender roles, just a sense that "Daddy and/or Mommy do this, so I should, too." Use your power wisely.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 01 Nov 2010 #permalink

And in case the evidence in this post isn't enough, there is your observation, first posted when SteelyKid was about half her current age, that clothes for female babies and toddlers tend toward frilly pink princess stuff, which you and Kate dislike intensely (for good reason).

We still get most of her clothes from the boys' section at Target, because they're sturdy and practical, which is important when you're a toddler on the go. This leads to a lot of people mistaking her for a boy, because her hair is still pretty short (not deliberately, it's just growing really slowly-- Kate's apparently did the same thing when she was little). The return of seasonal weather helps a bit, because her cool-weather coat is lavender with little flowers...

I should note that, to their credit, the teachers at the JCC day care have been terrific about not forcing particular gender roles on her-- we're at least as likely to get notes saying that she spent the day playing with tools or cars as that she was playing with dolls. Which is fine by us.

Why didn't you guys read to your child??

Raising my kids aeons ago, in the 70s, I bought into that whole "it's all socialization" thing that was going around, maybe partly because I had been an odd child; I preferred my brothers' toys to mine. I had no use for dolls. I loved creepy-crawlies.

So I made sure both girls and boys toys were available to my kids, boys and girls alike, and never hinted at any preference.

And my girls ignored the trucks and played with dolls. I gave up, and let them be what they wanted to be.

Good for you!! I'm sick to death of hearing people say how obvious it is that boys and girls are so very different. When I was a toddler, I loved trucks and hated dolls ... and I am pretty sure this was a negative reaction to the gender roles that had been pushed at me since birth. I'm pretty sure I knew that I was upsetting the adults by being such a tomboy.

I have to say this: the baby is too cute for words! I liked the first picture. Maybe because I am an avid reader myself. Anyway, it was a pretty interesting read. I guess kids are just inclined to imitate the people in their surroundings without really knowing what they are doing. As for little girls playing with boys' toys, that shouldn't be such a problem. I mean, what if she is surrounded with older brothers? My guess is that she will go for the boys toys and play with the rest of the kids her age, rather than play with the dolls and be all alone. Just saying. :)

Chuk, back then she wouldn't sit still for it. Now she demands at least two readings of Dr. Seuss books per day, plus _Goodnight Moon_ and a Pooh story at night.

I don't know if it's been researched, but my own experience is that adults interract differently with a child as young as three months or so, based on what gender you tell them it is. If that's widespread (and not the product of small samples or my own biases) then it's no wonder that the kids are manifesting significantly different behaviours at very early ages.

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 02 Nov 2010 #permalink