[ Back to EurekAlert! ] Public release date: 22-May-2001
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Contact: David Partenheimer
dpartenheimer@apa.org
202-336-5706
American Psychological Association

Same-sex peers reinforce sex role behavior in social activities, study finds

WASHINGTON — Young children are socialized by their same-sex peers to conform to typical sex role behavior and the effects are noticeable even within a short time, according to a study involving pre-school and kindergarten children. The results, published in the May issue of Developmental Psychology, a journal of the American Psychological Association (APA), suggest that play in same-sex peer groups at an early age may have later consequences for how boys and girls behave and interact.

On average, children spend a majority of their social interaction time with peers of the same sex and little with children of the opposite sex. The results of the study show that over time, it may become harder for children to interact compatibly with children of the opposite sex because they have developed a different set of social skills, styles, expectations and preferences.

Study authors Carol Lynn Martin, Ph.D., and Richard A. Fabes, Ph.D., of Arizona State University observed the play behavior and sex of play partners of 61 children (28 boys and 33 girls) over a six-month period at a university day-care facility. Although the boys and girls (ages 3 - 6) were not very different in most of their behaviors at the beginning of the school year, sex differences developed and/or increased by the spring.

"The more time boys spent playing with other boys in the fall, the greater the likelihood that they were observed to be rougher, more aggressive and more active in their play the following spring," said the authors. "For girls, exposure to same-sex peers appears to contribute to a relatively calmer style of interaction. Girls with increased exposure to other girls during the fall showed lower aggression and activity levels in the spring."

Children who spent more time with same-sex peers experienced more opportunities and stronger pressures to conform to gender-related behaviors than did children who spent less time with same-sex peers, according to the researchers. "Peers may play the role of gender 'enforcers,' who monitor and maintain gender boundaries by conveying information about the correct behavior for girls and boys and about the consequences likely to occur if gender boundaries are violated. In our study, observers reported that some children were very active in providing messages about gender-appropriate behavior and boundaries."

The findings also suggest that as boys spend more time playing with other boys, the less time they spend playing near adults, whereas girls showed an increased tendency to play near adults over time. "The relatively less supervised nature of boys' play may contribute to the increased forceful and active nature of boys' interaction. Although girls showed an increased tendency to play near adults over time, higher levels of same-sex exposure magnified this tendency," say the researchers.

Although play among boys is rough and dominance-oriented, boys appear to find this active type of play increasingly pleasing and exciting, say the researchers. The findings show that the more boys play with other boys, the more positive emotions they expressed over time. Boys who do not find this kind of play interesting, say the authors, may withdraw from play with boys or may be rejected by other boys, which would decrease their expressions of positive emotions.

Not only do boys' and girls' experiences in their same sex peer groups contribute to stereotypical gender specific interactions and play styles, they also contribute to sex segregation itself. "These different styles of play socialize boys and girls to behave in ways the other sex likely finds increasing unattractive and uninteresting," according to Drs. Martin and Fabes. "As boys become more physical over time, girls' interest in playing with boys may decrease. As children grow older, these patterns of behavior become more ingrained and may contribute to the increases in sex segregation that are seen later in childhood."

The long-term consequences of same-sex play have not been studied. "However," says Dr. Martin, "if children continue to be socialized in these ways by their peers, then we would expect to find that some girls and boys will become increasingly different in their styles of interaction over time. For these children, their early patterns may be subject to change with increased exposure to the other sex during adolescence and adulthood."

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Article: “The Stability and Consequences of Young Children's Same-Sex Peer Interactions," Carol Lynn Martin, Ph.D., and Richard A. Fabes, Ph.D., Arizona State University, Developmental Psychology, Vol. 37, No. 3.

Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office or at http://www.apa.org/journals/dev/dev373431.html.

Study co-author Carol Lynn Martin, Ph.D., can be reached at 480-965-5861 or by e-mail at cmartin@asu.edu.

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world’s largest association of psychologists. APA’s membership includes more than 155,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 59 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.



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