Imagine your child as a chimpanzee. Don't pretend as though this is a big stretch, especially if they're jumping on the couch cushions and making funny noises, as mine are at the moment. As furry little apes, do you suppose they'd still be drawn to the same toys--girls to dolls and housekeeping sets, boys to ninja weapons? Or would they, free from all of our cultural conditioning and television commercials, show no gender preference?
It's a longstanding debate in child development: Are sex differences in play something biological or something we create in children through social conditioning? For all of the back and forth debating this question has garnered, it's been largely impossible to answer, because you can't separate children from culture. As it turns out, child psychologists should have just asked a chimpanzee.
A new study, published in the December 21, 2010 issue of the journal Current Biology, shows that chimpanzees deep in the Ugandan forest display gender stereotyped play without other chimps modeling this behavior. Based on more than 14 years of fieldwork with the Kanyawara chimp community in Kibale National Park, primatologists Sonya Kahlenberg and Richard Wrangham authored the study, which provides the first evidence of a wild, nonhuman animal exhibiting sex differences in play. Their research provides strong evidence that such gender-typed play is a natural component of human children as well.
Young chimpanzees in the wild may not have Barbie dolls or Ninja Turtle swords to play with, but they do have sticks--the toy of opportunity for all chimp kids. So primatologists tracked the way the youngsters used them. Little girl chimps collected sticks that they used as dolls--cradling their stick, feeding it with other sticks, and generally engaging in "play mothering" in the same way a human girl might play house or take care of a doll. Since they could find no evidence that childbearing females or other adults modeled this stick play to young female chimps, they were able to conclude that this tendency arose naturally in the young primates.
Boy chimps, on occasion, would use sticks to mimic child care just like the girls. But far more often they used the sticks to fight with (sound familiar?); something the girls rarely did. As Elizabeth Lonsdorf of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes tells Science News: "These new data suggest that sex differences in how children play may go way back in our evolutionary lineage and predate socialization in human cultures."
This does not let caretakers nor culture completely off the hook for gender socialization, however. Studies which demonstrate that adults interact differently with male and female children remain as valid as ever. If you dress the same baby up in either boy or girl clothing, adults treat the child differently depending on what gender they presume the baby to be. Decades of research has shown that social conditioning--from the way adults treat children to what they model and what is modeled by the media--exerts a strong influence on children's behavior. Nature versus nurture is not an either/or proposition, but a two-way street, where each one influences the other.
Parents and teachers should continue to try and battle sex stereotypes whenever possible, particularly wherein it pertains to a child who desires to transcend those boundaries. (Girls can be firefighters too if they want to, and there's nothing wrong with a boy who likes to cook.) Just don't expect girls to lose interest in frilly stuff and boys to drop their lizards and snails and take up a sudden interest in ballet. There is a genetic component to stereotypical gender play, and children may simply be doing what comes naturally to them.
1. Bruce Bower, "Female chimps play with dolls," Science News, Vol. 179j No.2, 16, Jan. 15, 2011