Boys and Girls

Boys will be boys and girls will be girls, right?.

It reminds me of that Blur song: “Girls who are boys, who like boys to be girls, who do boys like they're girls, who do girls like they're boys”. I get a consensus from a lot of people that it doesn’t matter how equally you treat them, that in the end, boys will play with cars, and girls will play with dolls, because that is how they are.

Girls are made of sugar and spice, and all things nice. Boys are made of slugs and snails, and puppy dogs tails.

I just don’t see how that works. All the evidence coming from the last 50 years is showing that nearly all behaviour and character traits are learned, patterns passed down from parent to child. You get certain messages, often unconsciously passed down, you start to believe them, and before you know it, she is studying English or Nursing and he is studying Maths or Engineering. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy.

I watched “No More Boys and Girls” last month, in which the presenter showed how parents and teachers pass on messages about what it means to be a boy or a girl to children, however unconsciously done. In one scene he looked at slogans on t-shirts, seemingly innocent ones like “Little Princess” and “Little Monster”, and scaled them up to: “Looks are everything”, “Born to be underpaid”, or “Boys don’t cry” and “I can’t express my feelings”.

I never liked slogans anyway.

As Mole’s fourth birthday approaches, I find myself thinking more and more about how much she is already defined by her gender, about who she is, and what she can or can’t do. I notice it most in the toys and the clothes. Looking at your typical supermarket clothes lines, the girls clothes are mostly pastel colours, thin and flimsy material, and tight fitting, while the boys clothes are in darker colours, thicker and sturdier, looser cut, and usually cheaper.

Then come the toys. Sparkly and scented playdoh for girls, basic playdoh for boys. An array of pink plastic kitchenware and dolls clothes for girls, some blue trains and trucks for boys. BMX bikes covered in spiderman for boys, sit up bikes with basket and a bell, covered in pink and sparkles for girls.

On that last point I was quite surprised. I was looking for a new bike with stabilisers for Mole’s birthday, and wanted something fairly gender neutral for her, but literally all I could find was extremes in one direction or the other. In the end I settled on a plain looking bike that at least didn’t have cheer leader tassels sprouting from the handle bars, but it was pink all over. Mole loves pink.

Then there is the negative connotation with ‘girly things’ compared with the positive connotation for ‘boyish things’. A girl can be a tomboy and it is acceptable, while a boy wanting to wear dresses and play with dolls is not.

I once saw a dad and his two year old son in a playgroup, and the little boy was going for the dolls prams. The dad couldn’t stand this. He kept steering the boy away from the prams and towards some plastic trucks, and the boy would keep going back for the dolls. I wonder what the dad was afraid of? that his son was not the vision of masculinity that he had hoped for?.

As John Lewis announce that they are making all their children’s wear unisex, I feel that exciting and enlightened times are ahead.

This prompted me to re-evaluate all of Mole and Hedgehog’s current clothes and toys, to see how much of it is really girly. I think there is no mistake when you enter their bedroom that it is a girl’s room. The pink dolls house is a giveaway, as are the sparkly dressing up outfits, the prams and the cots.

But there are plenty of things that are more neutral. The jigsaw puzzles, the books, the musical instruments, the building blocks, the train set and the easel. I would say combined these get played with about 50% of the time, the dolls take up the other 50%.

The books… they are another area all together. Every time I read Mole the story of Cinderella or Snow White, I get a bit uncomfortable. All the fairy tales that end with a pretty girl getting married to her handsome prince… mmmmm, do I really want to sell this story to my daughter?, what effect is this having on Mole? I worry about it. I mean there are plenty of books about jungles and farms and dragons and insects and pirates on their shelves too, and they get picked just as often as the fairy tales. The Gingerbread Man is the current favourite. No passive and pretty girls getting married in that one, what a relief.

I admit that I like to put Mole and Hedgehog in dresses from time to time, especially if we are seeing family or they are going to be ‘on display’, as if to say ‘Look at my beautiful daughters’. I’m also certain that I’ve treated them differently than if they were boys. When they are scaling a climbing frame for example, I have heard myself say “Be careful”. I get a “Why?”, and then I’m forced to question myself. “Well, because you might hurt yourself”. Translation: ‘don’t be too ambitious or adventurous because you might hurt yourself. You’re only a delicate girl after all’.

After realising this, I made a conscious effort not to say things like “Be careful” when they are attempting something new and exciting for the first time. I’ll be encouraging and give them lots of praise, and ask them what they think about something: “Do you want to do this or that?”, then accept their decision. I’m hoping this approach will build confidence in their own abilities, rather than chivvy away at it.

I don’t always accept their decision though. Like when its mid-winter outside and Mole wants to wear a summer dress, or when its mid-summer and she’s insisting on trousers and a jumper. Or when she wants to watch ‘Caillou’ for the 20th time on youtube (it’s a Canadian cartoon featuring a very cheesy voiceover and a vomit inducing child if anyone is wondering), and I steer her towards ‘Charlie and Lola’ which is slightly more bearable to watch.

Mole has been telling us what she wants for her birthday for the past six weeks, there is an ever growing list. I really need to start writing some of them down. Most of them consist of something that Hedgehog has, that Mole wants too. There is a large amount of girly stuff on her wish list, dolls clothes for example. She is forever dressing and undressing them. But she’s also expressed a wish for those rubbery dinosaurs and reptiles you find in gift shops. The more chavy tat the better, she loves it.

It is so hard to make your children totally free of your own attitudes and prejudices when it comes to gender, let alone the messages about gender coming from society at large. It’s amazing they turn out as balanced as they do really. But it’s really hit home to me how important it is to give girls and boys the chance to try the alternatives, in toys, clothes, and activities. We could all try mixing it up a little.

If nothing else they are more likely to develop other areas of their brains, to see each other on an equal footing, and to have a more open mind about what their future is going to look like.

Now that has to be a good thing, for everyone.