Having always been a staunch advocate of the nurture argument, especially with babies, when it comes to preferences for toys, activities and colours it was with more than just normal curiosity that I tuned into the BBC 2 programme ‘No more boys and girls‘. It didn’t disappoint. The show considered ‘nurture’ in the classroom and in the home at the age of 7 years. Worryingly ideas of gender, including ability, expected behaviour and limitations, are set by the age of seven. We talk a lot about pink and blue but my worry has never been the colours themselves but the language around them – I wrote about this previously here so I won’t labour that point again this time!
Up until puberty physiologically boys and girls are the same, same brain, same strength, same size (obviously sizes and strength vary depending on the build of a child). The programme challenged both boys and girls perceptions of themselves, their gender and of those around them. There were some typical observations – girls underestimated their ability, boys were more likely to be angry, girls were less likely to be good at tasks involving spatial awareness and boys expected girls to look after children when they got older. I often have the discussion with other parents (especially on mat leave) where they tell me that boys and girls are completely different – girls prefer dolls and kitchens, boys prefer cars and trains. I’ve never bought into this and as Chimamanda Adichie has so eloquently put ‘… take cooking for example … I was going to say that maybe women are born with a cooking gene, until I remember that the majority of the famous cooks in the world, whom we give the fancy title of “chefs,” are men.’ I have always felt that in the younger years nurture plays such a huge part.
We only have to look around us – the toys, the clothes, the books, the cartoons – to think about the characters we expose our children to. We set their expectations of gender from such a young age. In fact we set their expectation from the moment they are born (or indeed before they are born if we know their gender when they are in the womb). Studies have shown that parents talk to baby girls using more emotional language than they do with boys, that they are more physical with baby boys, they look at a baby boy and use language of being ‘big and strong’ and look at a girl of the same weight and say they are ‘so pretty and delicate’. This means that from the moment they open their eyes in their new world they are being led in one particular direction.
This is nothing new but it is often so subconscious that it affects everything we then do as proven by the experiment Dr Javid Abelmoneim conducted with a number of volunteers. They all thought they were liberal and open minded but immediately gave what they thought were girls the dolls and boys the cars etc. It’s not rocket science to see that this is already shaping how children see themselves and the opportunities they then have as they get older. How do you know you are good at something if you didn’t even get to try it?
One of the most interesting parts for me was that Professor Gina Rippon used brain scans to show that the brains of little boys and girls are anatomically the same. She also showed that the more you practised a certain skill the denser the corresponding part of the brain becomes. Sometimes old wives tales are such for a reason and ‘practise makes perfect’ is clearly right. So yes 7 year old boys are better at shape based puzzles and models. Why? Because they have been playing with these types of toys since they were babies. Why? Because they are ‘boy’ toys. Girls haven’t necessarily had the opportunity so they aren’t going to be the best – track this through life and you see why there are fewer female engineers. Guess what though? When the girls practised these same games a couple of times every week, they also became really good at them. Surprised? You shouldn’t be.
The results were brilliant. After the 6 weeks, the girls were more confident and more accurately predicting their fantastic results and the boys were more emotionally stable generally being less angry and lashing out far less. Perhaps most importantly both genders now had the view that there aren’t specific boy jobs and girl jobs. Boys and girls as equals. That can only be a good thing.
It’s a challenge, but we can affect some of the world around us, our language, the toys and books we buy but what worries me is our unconscious bias with the reactions we have to the actions of our (and others) children.
We expect boys to climb higher, be tougher, be louder and when they do these things as babies, as toddlers, as children we smile, raise our eyebrows and say ‘boys’. When girls do them we coax them down, stop them falling and tell them to be good, to keep quiet. We need to stop doing this, let all children climb higher (and yes sometimes they will fall), encourage a bit of toughness in everyone and tell all the children to be kind and mindful of others. I am hopeful that the generation we are raising now will be more aware and really can strive for what they want to do, not because they were limited by the world around them but because they were encouraged to try as many things as possible no matter what that activity or game is.
Our girls’ confidence, our boys’ mental health and ultimately our society depends on it.
No more boys and girls, BBC2 http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/proginfo/2017/33/no-more-boys-and-girls
Gender and age differences in parent–child emotion talk, Anna Aznar & Harriet Tenembaum