Boy and girl on a merry-go-round

‘One of each’

From the freedom of the toddler years to learning what society expects – as parent of a boy and a girl Megan Perryman explains the biggest difference between her son and her daughter… how everyone else treats them.

So my family’s now complete. I have ‘one of each’. A pretty princess with a head full of sparkles, and a rough and tumble boy with dirty knees and a cheeky grin. The next few years will be full of princesses, ponies and fairies for her, and dinosaurs, trucks, and space ships for him. Those poor families whose second child was the same gender as their first. How disappointed they must be with their clone children with completely identical interests!

Except – let’s face it – that’s not quite how it works.

Being a toddler

From day one, my daughter made her presence known with her loud cry and a determined stare at anyone who came near. She grew into a toddler who was talkative, cheeky and full of energy. Aged two, her favourite things were:

Toddler girl with cars.

  • Dinosaurs
  • Jumping in puddles
  • Dolls and action figures
  • Painting
  • Tea parties
  • Insects
  • Musical instruments (the louder the better)

Her favourite colour was different every time you asked, and she was happy playing on her own or with the boys and girls around her.

And then it changed. In her final year of nursery, she finally cottoned on to what society expected of her as a girl. She picked up on the “typical girl!” comments and the compliments on her looks. She started to notice that television adverts showed boys or girls with a toy, rarely showing both playing together in the same way as she played with her cousin. She realised that people automatically handed her the pink version of things, and that pink was also used on toy packaging when it related to being at home or looking pretty.

Her personality didn’t change – she was still her energetic cheeky self – but she started to try on the accoutrements of ‘femininity’ to feel accepted. For the first time she started to claim that pink was for girls, and that she didn’t want to play football any more because the boys were better than her (they weren’t). She fell in love with the myth that there are only two types of child.

 “It is hardly surprising that children take on the unofficial occupation of gender detective. They are born into a world in which gender is continually emphasised through conventions of dress, appearance, language, colour, segregation and symbols.” Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender

My daughter’s brand-new ‘feminine’ side was most definitely learnt behaviour. There was absolutely no sign of it in her two-year old self.

When I had my son shortly after, I watched him eagle-eyed to see if there was anything inherently ‘masculine’ about his early years.

Toddler boy with dollyIn some ways my son differs from my daughter – he’s more affectionate, calmer and actually enjoys his vegetables rather than regarding them as poison. But in many other ways they’re similar. He’s also talkative, cheeky and full of energy (and there was me hoping for a quiet one!). He’s now two and his favourite things are almost identical to my daughter’s at that age. He is equally happy running round the garden jumping in puddles as he is meticulously pouring pretend tea for his dolls to enjoy.

He likes all colours and – when given a truly free choice without judgemental comments – will pick something pink and sparkly as often as not. His favourite toy might be a fairy one week and a dinosaur the next, and because nobody reacts to his choices he’s perfectly comfortable with that.

I especially love to see his hybrid play experiences – pretending to bottle-feed a football or putting on sparkly shoes in order to chase monsters. I’ve overheard people using this type of ‘hybrid’ play (boys pulling heads off dolls, or girls tucking cars into bed) as evidence that there are instinctive ways for boys and girls to play but I’m not convinced. I think all young children initiate this type of play in many, many guises and these examples are just more ways of seeing that in action.

I observed something interesting recently, when we were watching a new cartoon featuring a big brother and a little sister. “I’m that one!” he beamed, pointing at the little girl in pink with a bow in her hair, not because he identifies as female (as far as I know) but because his place as the youngest in the family is more significant to him than his gender identity.

Thinking about all the toddlers I know – through family and friends – each and every one of them is different. I haven’t spotted any real links between gender and personality type at the toddler stage (with the possible exception of households where gender difference has always been reinforced). Children like to play. It really is as simple as that.

Looking for patterns

Despite my children being very similar in nature, I’ve noticed that people like to look for patterns of gender difference. If my son is being particularly loud, I’m told he’s “full of energy” whereas identical behaviour from my daughter elicits comments about her being bossy or a chatterbox. I’m told her love of reading is related to her being a girl, although my son also loves books and so far looks like he’ll follow in her footsteps. It’s easy to find patterns if you want to find them, but I’m not sure they’re really there.

“This assumption of natural difference is still common currency in contemporary society… This is despite years of feminist campaigning and academic research to the contrary.” Kat Banyard, The Equality Illusion

Girl and boy with toy pushchairsEven the most well-meaning of us can find it easy to repeat stereotypes we’ve overheard without giving them much thought. A recent chat with another parent about her daughter’s difficulty with reading ended with her concluding, “Well, girls are better readers than boys anyway.” A conversation with another parent about the terrible twos included the comment, “Aren’t boys aggressive though? It’s probably hormones.” A trip to the farm, where my daughter was excited to ride on a tractor but my son was more interested in trying to make a break for it through the carpark, received the comment, “Oh, boys do love tractors…

All these comments were within the earshot of children, and it is unsurprising they try to match the behaviour that is expected of them.

The Baby Gender Diary looked at the many ways in which boys and girls are given different messages in childhood, and tracked them via a Twitter diary. Here is just a tiny snapshot of some of the things they encountered:

11/01/11

Being shown round her new nursery a member of staff said to our daughter, “This is what we call the boys corner”. It’s a play table for cars.

29/06/11

Daughter settled no bother at all when she first went to the childminder. Fair to say our son is less keen, but still only his first week. I was telling someone that it had been a little difficult and she says, “Well he’s a boy.”

03/09/11

My niece was having a ‘Pirates and Mermaids’ week at pre-school. She was a pirate and a member of staff told her mum when she came to pick her up, “She’s too beautiful to be a pirate, why isn’t she a mermaid?” Even at age 2, appearance is the message.

03/01/12

Have been told by three different adults over Christmas that you need to get out the house so “the boys” can burn up some energy.

20/05/12

Our 4-year-old just watched Barney’s Barrier Reef on BBC2. Every single one of about 15 animals was referred to as ‘he’.

Leaving toddlerhood

As with my daughter, I’m sure my son will start to change. There will probably come a day when he realises he will be teased for playing with Hello Kitty, Lego Friends and dress-up shoes.

I feel sad that one day he may tell me that pink is for girls, because it will be the start of him concealing the person he is.

But more than that, I feel angry. I feel angry that we’ve created a culture where boys and girls are pushed into becoming stereotypes. I’m angry at the big businesses selling us the lie that boys and girls need different toys.

And as parents we have a real fight on our hands to develop our liberated toddlers into well-rounded children.

Sign toys petition

6 Comments

  1. Lucy Forrest

    Your description of your children at age 2 matches my eldest daughter perfectly. She is no more likely to say pink is her favourite than any other colour and recently chose some Toy Story pyjamas at our local supermarket because she recognised Buzz Lightyear (although the packaging described them as boys’ pyjamas) and a pink Minnie Mouse onesie. I too dread the day she starts to be conscious of gender stereotypes and only picks the pink stuff. As you say, children shouldn’t have to conceal parts of who they are. It’s very sad.

  2. CJ

    My daughter is two. She likes dresses, baby dolls, and tea parties. She also likes trucks, wolves, and dinosaurs. I got extremely frustrated trying to find pull-up diapers for her that were not princessy, and finally had to give up. Now I’m trying to find underwear for her, and the same problem is occurring. She loves Spiderman and Superman, and I’d love to get her some undies with those characters on them, but they are nowhere to be found. It is very difficult to even find some plain white underwear that I could decorate with iron-on characters. If she chooses Minnie Mouse I’m fine with that, but I want her to choose for herself, not because she feels she’s failing a test if she doesn’t.

  3. Kate

    My daughter didn’t really go to nursery and this hit her later. She liked dinosaurs, cars from Cars, monsters, space, animals, and her favourite colour was grey, then her favourite colour was yellow. We didn’t push anything on her, she just liked what she liked. She has an early birthday in the school year and for her first ever party, her 5th birthday, she was going to have a Fairy Tales themed party, I reckoned so some little girls could wear their princess dresses if they wanted, but mine wanted to wear her Big Bad Wolf outfit, which was amazing. (The only other party she’d gone to was a pirate party and she went as a pirate dinosaur.) Three days before her party, she announced, ‘And I’m going as a princess’. I had to hotfoot it to M&S and pick up a Belle dress. She’d been at school for 8 weeks.

    I don’t want to be a parent who’s like ‘not the pink! not the princess!’ because I personally like a lot of that stuff and I don’t want anyone to think of ‘girl’ stuff as inferior and whoop it up because my daughter chooses toys that are supposed ‘boy’ toys because that makes her cool/superior/clever. But it’s bollocks that the expected choice is what girls will naturally choose.

    Anyway, she went through the pink phase, then the lilac phase and is now in a blue phase, and it’s a very ‘pretty’ blue phase and all her cultural references are very gendered.

  4. Duncan

    My two kids are developing in exactly the same way as you describe in this perceptive article. I agree wholeheartedly with your feelings with one additional point:

    We all want our kids to thrive in society and the society that has been created includes gender expectations. I too will be very sad when and if my son stops telling me that pink is his favorite colour, and putting hair slides in his (short, curly) hair – but if it is a sign that he is developing the maturity to understand how to succeed in the world around him then I will also be pleased. A square peg in a round hole is a tough, even if liberated, life.

  5. CiCi

    Interesting article. My child is grown now but was a preschooler in the 80s and they were doing this marketing then also. I believe that’s when it began, especially the gender colors. It wasn’t my child that was bashing against the sexism it was ME! One day while trying to buy her coveralls, all they had in the girls dept. were pastels–lilac, mint, buttercup. I wanted a bold red or yellow. They were to be had—in the boys dept. I bought red ones that she loved and wore but I also made a complaint to the store manager about their sexist clothing–that colors were neutral items and ALL colors should be available to both sexes.
    Ironically, and historically, pink was meant for boys and blue for girls. Try that on for size Mr. Manufacturer!
    As for toys, I was trying my hardest to exorcise sexism there too. She understood that. I loved that my girl liked dinos and insects and encouraged natural science, but she was also an artist and very girly, however, it wasn’t until she hit ages 10-12 that I saw the societal sexism full force and adolescence was discarded teachings and accepted societal lessons. Fortunately as a grown person she really gets this manufactured sexism, sets her own standards and was the one who directed me to this article.

  6. Sally Barnes

    As a child myself, I was always bought dolls and “girl” toys, and I hated it. I played with my brother’s He-Man, Thunder-Cats and Action Men and would always have them taken off me because it was wrong that I played with boys toys. It made me stubborn enough to definitely not want it for my own kids.

    I saw a lot of this behaviour with all three of my girls and I fought long and hard to make sure they made their own choices about what toys they wanted to play with. I had argument after argument with my family because I “wasn’t bringing them up right” but I stand by what I’ve done. Whenever they’d want to swap their Bob the Builder, horses, tool sets or dinosaurs (which they all loved) with a buggy, a doll, make up, I’d always ask them why and I can guarantee you that the reply would be “nan said, auntie said” and I’d say no to them having it, telling that the only thing that mattered was their own happiness.

    Fast forward a long way to now through massive arguments with my family, friends, etc about how I was bringing them up wrong, about how I was denying them all those “girly” things that all girls should have and all three are doing amazing. 17 year old is at college studying psychology and sociology (and looking at an A* grade in her A levels), 15 year old is interested in zoology (running at a B) and 10 year old (who loves to draw and is also higher functioning autistic) is interested in art and IT.

    My sister – in contrast – had two boxes, one blue, one pink as she had one kid of each gender. He could only play with the boys toys, she could only play with the girls toys, and if one played with the others, it was taken off them and replaced with one of their own. She wore pink, he wore blue and it was scandalous to have it any other way. He was allowed to be certain things (fireman was too dangerous, soldier was too violent, etc) as was she (usually princess, bride or mummy). They’re the same age as my own kids pretty much. One is into playing computer games, the other is into fashion and make up. And that’s it. Somehow, it’s so damn sad.

    It’s been damned difficult, but if I can somehow sign a petition, help someone not have to go through what I did, all the better. Our kids deserve better than this narrow-minded view as does our society. We should not be here where we are right now, we should be better than this.

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