New research has found that children as young as five can show signs of "benevolent sexism," an attitude which at first seems to be positive, but in fact includes behaviors that are patronizing and sexist towards women.
Carried out by researchers at New York University, USA and Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, the new study looked at 237 American children aged 5 to 11 and asked them to say whether they thought a series of statements were "right" or "wrong" to investigate their gender attitudes.
The statements included both "benevolent" views about women, such as "Men need to protect women from danger," and hostile ones, like "Women get more upset than men about small things."
The findings, published in the journal Sex Roles, showed that the children who held such benevolent views about women are also likely to hold negative, hostile views too, even though the two views are distinct.
"It might seem cute when a boy acts in chivalrous ways toward girls, or when a girl pretends to be a princess who's waiting for a prince to rescue her," says one of the study's authors Andrei Cimpian. "Many times, this is just play, with no deeper meaning. But other times, these behaviors -- even though they may seem inoffensive -- might signal that children view women in a negative light, as weak, incompetent, and unable to survive or thrive without a man's help."
The team also found that although hostile sexism decreased with age among both girls and boys, benevolent sexism decreased with age only for girls, not for boys.
"Boys may be less likely to recognize that their benevolent attitudes toward women are, in fact, patronizing," Cimpian suggests. "For instance, they may hold on to the belief that men ought to protect women because this view is in line with social norms and may be reinforced throughout their upbringing."
The researchers claim that this is the first evidence that children as well as adults can display benevolent sexism, which undermines and patronizes women through attitudes and beliefs such as women should be warm, caring and pure and need to be looked after.
They add that in light of the new findings and the current quarantine situation, which is forcing parents and children to spend a lot more time together, now could be a good opportunity for parents to address any concerns with their children.
"Parents and kids are spending a lot of time together these days, so there are plenty of opportunities for conversation," says first author Matthew Hammond. "It could be worthwhile to spend a few minutes discussing what they think men and women should be."