It is almost inevitable that when I walk from one room to another in our house I will stump my toe on a miniature pushchair / pram / buggy (choose the word which bests suits your cultural upbringing). The mere mention of this pushchair will evoke a picture in your mind as to what colour it is, how tall it may be or how many wheels it has (pink, who knows and eight originally minus two which equals six – if you don’t count the one that is still hanging on for dear life). What you have just done is accessed your cognitive schemata which allows you to fill in the blanks when certain knowledge is not accessible. A schema is a pre-stored mental representation based on our experience of the world and past knowledge. A cognitive schema is quite simply, a collection of networks based on knowledge, beliefs and expectations.
Why are Disney stories, Peppa Pig and Noddy all so familiar to our children? Besides the fact that they have watched many episodes (mostly in one sitting and on repeat), it is that these stories are all within their cultural schema. Peppa Beaver is more likely to be a hit in Canada whereas Peppa Pig quite happily entertains the youth of tomorrow in their UK homes. If I told my daughter about Native Americans living on an open plain in Middle America versus the story of a postman who drives around in his little red car accompanied by his black and white cat (known as Postman Matt! in our house), she is less likely to build up a set of schemata, as the former story is more foreign than the latter based on her geographical knowledge. What’s interesting is that children will edit a culturally specific story when retelling it to suit their own cultural schemata – we’ve all experienced the hilarity of the game “Chinese-whispers” or perhaps you may know it as “broken telephone”. ‘Filling in the blanks’ makes our memory more vulnerable to distortions and this is why your little one may not always make perfect sense when trying to convey what they did at playschool on any given day.
This explanation lies at the root of gender identity. Our little ones perceive themselves as either male or female based on the traits of males and females as depicted by our broader society. This motivates them to act like others in their respective male or female groups. Some of you may be wondering about young ones who mix up gender roles and the probability of that resembling a tendency towards homosexuality. This is possible, but then again most boys like to push a doll around in a pram, not based on sexual orientation, but merely due to the fact that they see mommy doing it every single day – they are merely imitating her behaviour (so rest easy you fathers out there, where the mere thought send shivers down your spine and puts the fear of God in you). So next time you hear a nee-naa racing past and your little calls out “fire”, “danger” or “red” (and your wife thinks of this month’s pinup from her firemen calendar which hangs on the back of her cupboard door) (s)he has just accessed their internal cognitive schemata to make sense of what is happening around them.