A new study from Russia shows that the beginnings of gender norms can be traced to kindergarten.
In the study, sociologists at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Russia found that kindergarten teachers transmit social norms to children, including conservative ideas of femininity and masculinity.
“Doing gender” — forming an understanding of masculinity and femininity — permeates every aspect of a kindergartener’s life, from games to showing an interest in certain professions, according to School of Sociology Associate Professor Olga Savinskaya and Anastasia Cheredeeva.
Femininity and masculinity form “narrowly, according to conventional stereotypes,” researchers found in the study, which was based on interviews with mothers aged 27-40 and with mother-daughter pairs in which the children were 4 to 7 years old.
According to sociologist and girlhood researcher Professor Elena Iarskaia-Smirnova, starting from preschool age, teachers encourage boys to express themselves and be active, and girls to be attentive, studious and neat in appearance.
The mothers who were interviewed related the same practices. According to one, educators teach that “a girl should always be clean and pretty and that boys should protect girls and watch out for them.”
In addition, parents often encourage girls to be meek and obedient. One mother boasted of her daughter, “She is a very well-behaved child and does everything she is told.”
Educators generally agree that music, singing, and dance are obligatory elements of a “feminine” education.
Mothers often “assign” their daughters to artistic activities regardless of their actual interests. One mother expressed this attitude perfectly, saying: ‘We are very happy that she does not resist going to music lessons. It seems that she doesn’t hate these activities.”
Without considering whether the girl is even interested in these classes, her parents have already determined her educational path. “Her father and I would very much like for her to become a professional musician,” this mother said.
Such attitudes can limit the opportunities available to girls, according to the researchers, who see a danger in a person’s “biological sex” determining the activities in which they engage.
The games preschoolers play also conform to gender stereotypes, the researchers discovered. Girls’ games vary within the “mother-daughter” model and boys only very rarely take part. Such games reinforce the usual notions of familial roles concerning the duty of women to become mothers, the researchers noted.
Researchers added that the children they interviewed want to play in different ways “in unstructured games in which they can make up their own rules, by testing what their toys can do and by creating new roles for them.”
Gender-based considerations play a role in which professions the children find interesting.
“Girls aged 4-7 express interest in becoming veterinarians and teachers,” they said. “Data indicates that boys act out the more physical professions of fireman and driver.”
“Role-playing mother-daughter games with peers, as well as games with stuffed animals, turn into educational practice for taking care of someone,” the researchers said. “That is exactly what is expected of girls.”
At the same time, it would be wrong to conclude that girls can only fulfill their potential by taking care of others, the researchers added.