When it comes to concepts about gender, children are surprisingly flexible

"It was promising to find that so many children had empathy for a character who did not fit into a binary gender role," researcher Sara Beck said.
By Brooks Hays  |  Jan. 17, 2018 at 10:49 AM
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Jan. 17 (UPI) -- Gender is a spectrum. Most kids think so, at least.

According to a new study by researchers at Vanderbilt University, children are flexible in their conception of gender.

To better understand how young people think about gender, researchers had children between age 8 and 10 watch an episode of the Amazon children's series Annedroids, in which a genderless, human-like android named PAL explores gender identity.

During the episode, PAL navigates several gendered situations. For example, should PAL stand on the boys' side or the girls' side at the school dance?

Researchers surveyed kids about their conceptions of gender before and after watching PAL, noting changes in the flexibility of their thinking.

"Our results suggest that exposing children to this type of genderless character and engaging in one-on-one conversation about the character's gender identity may have the potential to encourage more flexible thinking in children who hold rigid gender stereotypes," Sara Beck, a doctoral candidate in developmental science at Vanderbilt's Peabody College, said in a news release.

When the children were asked what gender PAL should choose, half of them said PAL should not specify a gender, despite the fact that "neither" wasn't offered as a choice.

One child said: "I think PAL will choose to not be a he or a she but to just be PAL."

The results showed kids were more flexible in their thinking about gender after watching the episode, and the majority of kids responded positively when they were told PAL had made the decision to remain ungendered.

In their paper on the subject -- shared this week in the Nordicom publication Beyond Stereotypes? -- the researchers pointed out that the vast majority of kids TV and movie characters reflect gender stereotypes. Boys are portrayed as smarter and more aggressive, while girls are cast as sensitive romantics.

"We saw that children were well aware of society's expectations about behavior based on binary gender identities," Beck said. "But it was promising to find that so many children had empathy for a character who did not fit into a binary gender role."

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