Teach girls to box. Send boys to gymnastics

Give your children a diversity of skills by opening your mind about their options

The success and excitement of the recent Fifa Women’s World Cup proved, if ever it was in doubt, that football is not just for boys and men. But though we’ve begun to move away from stereotypes and all their restrictions in adulthood, when it comes to hobbies and extracurricular activities for our children, there’s still a tendency for parents to largely involve their children in activities that are gender-typical.

"There are many benefits to encouraging children to play with a variety of toys and engage in a variety of activities while growing up," psychologist Susi Lodola explains. "It allows a child to develop a range of skills and not just skills that are typically associated with their gender.

“Research has also demonstrated that children are often reluctant to engage in non-gender specific play and activities. It has been shown that children prefer toys that are labelled and advertised according to their own gender.” A reason why, Lodola believes, it would be “an idea not to label toys at all”.

“Some parents may be afraid that their children will be teased if they do not comply with gender norms,” she says. However, “it appears that parents who support and encourage a more open-mindedness about gender will help their children build a greater diversity of developmental skills”.

Derek Delaney, head coach at Whitechurch Boxing Club, says overall the number of girls taking up boxing has increased, but "this year as per usual, some girls, as they get a little bit older, tend to fall away".

Ratio wise, Delaney estimates that boy to girl participation rates at their club stands at 10:1. He believes this is down to how girls imagine they are perceived – “what a girl is supposed to do, what they’re supposed to look like and how they’re supposed to behave”.

Boxing offers girls “health and fitness, self-confidence and it’s great for their mental health”, Delaney says along with potential “future leadership roles within the club”.

Thirteen-year-old Gabrielle Mongan, a member of Whitechurch Boxing Club, represented Ireland in the 2019 European Schoolboy/girls Championships in Tbilisi, Georgia earlier this month.

Gabrielle's peers are all very happy for her, her mother, Kathleen, says, and her success is being celebrated and recognised. "She handed out an award at the Traveller Pride awards", and the director of Float like a Butterfly, Carmel Winters, "had a signed hoodie from Muhammad Ali's daughter which she handed over to Gabrielle".

Kathleen sees many benefits to her daughter’s involvement in boxing. “For her wellbeing it’s great. It keeps her very, very active. It keeps her fit, keeps her focused, keeps her from going out wanting to get herself into trouble. She wants to try to qualify for the Olympics down the road.

“It’s a great sport to have kids in, girls or boys,” Kathleen adds.

Naomi McQuade-Coldrick’s daughter Eva-Belle (5) is the only girl on their local rugby team, Virginia RFC.

Eva-Belle’s appreciation of rugby is no surprise as she hails from a rugby-loving family. In fact, Eva-Belle’s cousin, Amanda McQuade, is on the Ulster rugby team and was selected for the Aussie-Rules Irish team.

Naomi, however, has been told by others that “rugby is not a girls’ sport”, but says she doesn’t believe there should be sports just for girls and sports just for boys.

While Eva-Belle is more than capable of holding her own on the rugby pitch, she “still likes getting dressed up in princess dresses and getting her face painted”, her mum explains.

Along with the obvious health benefits for her daughter, Naomi says being part of a rugby club allows her daughter to make new friends and loves the inclusive nature of rugby. “Regardless of their abilities, they all get a turn,” she adds.

Hannah May teaches dance at Hip hop the day away with Hannah May. She admits getting boys involved in her classes can be a challenge. "Sometimes a boy might walk into one of my classes, see the amount of girls involved and then doesn't want to partake," she explains.

“I try to add a little bit of break-dancing in to make it that little bit cooler” so boys can see “it’s not just for girls – there are a lot of cool boy moves in it too. A lot of parents have said it’s really brought their confidence out.”

When it comes to getting active, May says dance is one of the best forms. “They’re coming into the class, they’re having fun. They walk out of the class sweating and don’t even realise they’re exercising.”

May recommends parents try to get a friend or cousin involved too if their son is a little self-conscious, as having a support network can really help.

Claire Mahon’s 10-year-old son Jack has been involved in gymnastics for the past two years. Although he loves it, he’s very aware that he is often the only boy there.

Jack doesn’t let this put him off but “he’s always happier to see other boys there”, Claire says, adding that he’s never been teased for being the only boy.

Claire believes “if there were workshops and they got to try it”, more boys might become involved. She also thinks if boys who like to play team sports were aware of the improved core strength gymnastics offers, it might increase the numbers participating.

Aideen O’Grady, owner of Starcamp Summer Camps, a performance-based camp, and mother to three boys and one girl, knows first-hand the challenge and importance of encouraging boys to take part in activities traditionally associated with girls. “When we started Starcamp 12 years ago it was at 10 per cent boys; it’s now at 40 per cent boys, but we had to actively work at this,” she says.

Children are born without inhibitions. It's a learned behaviour

“Boys and girls, males and females, need each other in every walk of life. They love mixing with each other.”

O’Grady finds that “mums seem to be more surprised by what can be achieved with the boys than with the girls”. It’s almost as if their “expectations for the boys are less”.

“The simple basic fact is that all kids love music, all kids love movement, all kids love dance. Show me a child who doesn’t deep-down love performance – there are very few.”

O’Grady believes a shift in parental attitudes towards what are deemed gender-acceptable activities is essential. “Children are born without inhibitions. It’s a learned behaviour,” she adds.