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:
- Jumping in puddles
- Dolls and action figures
- Tea parties
- 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.
In 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
Even 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:
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Our 4-year-old just watched Barney’s Barrier Reef on BBC2. Every single one of about 15 animals was referred to as ‘he’.
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