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If moms suddenly started shaving their faces and wearing neckties and dads painted their nails and applied lipstick, would their 2-year-olds notice?

It turns out they would. At 24 months of age, children seem to recognize gender stereotypes - and when they are broken, according to research from Brigham Young University.

"It just shows we need to be cautious," said Ross Flom, study author and assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at BYU. "They're not passive creatures. They're very active - which could be kind of frightening for parents [thinking], 'Holy cow, our 2-year-old is picking up on these subtleties. Imagine what else they're picking up on.' ''

Flom placed toddlers in front of two video monitors. A male and female actor were taped putting on lipstick or shaving, and applying nail polish or tying a necktie. Two images were shown at the same time and BYU timed how long the toddlers paid attention to each.

The professor found the 2-year-olds looked longer at the inconsistent images - not because the children believed they were "wrong" but because they were unfamiliar, Flom said. In other words, children in the study were used to seeing women use lipstick and men wear ties.

His study, recently published in the journal Infant Behavior & Development, confirmed previous research that found 2-year-olds have some knowledge of gender-stereotyped activities. But his study also notes that researchers used to think such sensitivity to stereotypes didn't show up until preschool, when children tend to segregate themselves based on gender and can articulate that, say, boys play with certain toys and girls play with others.

The study is a "nice demonstration of a developmental phenomenon," said Chris Porter, a BYU professor of human development who wasn't involved in the research. He said it shows babies are good observers who can pick up on subtle cues.

"Perhaps there's more of a social pressure towards socializing these children to sexual norms" than previously thought, he added.

Alan Fogel, a University of Utah professor of psychology who specializes in children, wasn't surprised by the study results. By 2 years, children begin to see themselves in terms of categories - that they are boys or girls, he said.

He suspects children are paying attention to gender stereotypes even earlier than 2 - though the BYU study found that 18-month-olds didn't pay closer attention to the inconsistent activities. By age 1, babies can categorize male versus female faces, Fogel said.

"There's something about gender that's very captivating for children," Fogel said. "We don't quite know why."

One explanation may be that it's biological. But the social environment plays a role, too. Parents who express strong gender stereotypical behavior have children who do the same, he said.

For parents, Flom's research is "interesting and helpful to understand that children really are aware of things you might think they're not aware of," Fogel said.

About the study

A BYU professor studied how 18 toddlers ages 18 months to 2 years respond to gender stereotypical behavior. He found that 2-year-olds paid closer attention when the stereotypes were violated - when women shaved and put on a tie and men applied lipstick or painted their nails.