Last night we had a rare Mums’ Night Out and one of the topics of conversation was (inevitably) our children and whether it was easier to have boys or girls. I think that we came to the conclusion that both sexes had their fair share of joys and challenges, but we also ranted a bit about the gender stereotypes that we felt children were being forced to fit into, even from an early age.
By concidence, at the British Psychological Society’s annual student conference today, one research paper shows that even 9- month-old babies choose gender-specific toys.
Researchers at City University, London found that, when presented with seven different toys, boys as young as 9 months old went for the car, digger and soccer ball, while ignoring the teddy bears, doll and cooking set.
And the girls? Hmmm, let me see if you can guess… At the same age, they were most interested in the doll, teddy bear and miniature pot, spoon and plastic vegetables.
Well, from personal experience, that was not true, as my older son adored dolls and teddy bears, while my younger devoured imitation food and pans. But of course, what am I, a single exceptional example, in a sea of data that shows the opposite?
However, it is also fair to add that from birth (and maybe even before that), parents and other carers respond differently to boys and girls, in words, gestures, behaviours, way of thinking. These young creatures are like sponges, absorbing so much information in those first few months of life that it is difficult to determine exactly how much is innate and how much is learnt behaviour and preferences.
Lise Eliot’s recent book Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps critically examines all of the scientific evidence to date and explains in very clear language how modest differences at birth between the brains of boys and girls are amplified by social factors and eventually produce greater anatomical changes in the brain of mature women and men. So then we arrive at the conclusion that ‘women are from Venus, men are from Mars’ – two different cultures, speaking different languages, with different values and meanings, never the twain shall meet.
What I loved about Eliot’s book is its optimistic assertion (which every parent wants to hear) that the brain is remarkably plastic and can remodel itself constantly based on its experiences. In other words, we are not stuck with our gender roles, we can make boys more socially and linguistically gifted, we can make girls more analytical and spatially aware.
The two cultures are not incompatible or unbridgeable. The two cultures are not even two separate cultures unless we deliberately seek to make them so. And, as with all national or minority cultures, as long as we are open, flexible, curious and eager to learn more, we will find ways to ensure fair and equitable treatment of all.
Have you found boys and girls to be very different from an early age? Do you find yourself responding differently to boys and girls? What can we do to ensure our children grow up with fewer gender stereotypes?