Would you give your son a Barbie?


Louise Holden wonders whether we can liberate our children from sexual stereotyping through play? And if so, would we want to?

A woman I know tried to turn her children's world into a gender-neutral space. She edited story books, banned dolls and weapons from the playroom, sold the television and dressed her son and daughter alike. She was exasperated to find one afternoon that her son had made a gun from Lego and was terrorising her daughter's Lego lady with it. Her project had failed or been sabotaged by external agents.

Concerned parents who try to undo thousands of years of social conditioning through the toy box often find their agendas overwhelmed by children's impulses. Even little children fall into gender camps in the playroom, and what they learn there informs their understanding of gender for the rest of their lives.

Dr Maire Cunneen, whose PhD is in early-childhood studies, has observed more than 160 three- to five-year-olds at play. She has been astonished at the gender bias of the choices they make at such a young age. There is no question, she says, that there are natural instincts at play, but she has also observed some strong conditioning factors coming through in both the children's and the parents' attitudes.

"The socialisation of children begins in earnest at the moment of birth, when girls are wrapped in pink blankets and boys in blue. Baby girls are described as quiet and cuddly while baby boys are described as big and strong. The fact that there may be no discernable difference between babies speaks volumes for the power of gender stereotyping."

In the course of her work with parents and children Cunneen has observed that baby girls and baby boys are not only dressed differently but also spoken to differently and played with differently. She has also found that parents and carers display markedly different expectations of even very young boys and girls.

Even the most progressive parents fall into line. Imagine, for example, that a family member has given you a present of a pink outfit for your new baby boy. Would you dress him in it? If you found your three-year-old daughter holding Tiny Tears at gunpoint would you praise her?

Last month a British documentary told the story of a baby twin boy who lost his genitals in a botched operation. Based on the theories of Professor John Money, who believes children are born "gender neutral" and can learn to be male or female, his parents decided to raise him as a girl rather than as a boy with no male genitals.

Bruce's name was changed to Brenda and he was dressed as a girl, encouraged to play with dolls, schooled with girls and raised a female. He had no inkling of his genetic origin, but by the time he was 14, after years of misery and isolation, Brenda had changed her name to David and was living as a boy.

Clearly, we cannot override our children's gender with a lick of pink paint. Nor would we wish to. There's nothing wrong with girls being girls and boys being boys.

Boys are drawn to games that test their spatial skills: directing a car and taking aim with a gun exercise the areas of the brain that switch on early in males. Space relation is a right-brain activity, and research suggests that boys' brain development is focused on the right side of the brain in the early years. The left side of the brain, which is concerned with communication and linguistics, is thought to develop earlier in girls.

It's not for the sake of social niceties that our brains develop in this way - it's a matter of survival. If early woman did not have strong nurturing impulses, the human species would not have made it this far. Young girls are thought to be drawn to pink because it is the colour of white infants. The girl-pink connection is a purely western phenomenon.

Likewise, were early men not interested in motion, direction and problem solving, their nurturing mates and their infants would have starved. We should be grateful, as a species, for the practical programming that got us where we are today.

The survival imperative is no less mportant now than it was in Neanderthal times, but we have come to expect more from life than mere survival. We want happiness, too, and we can use our amassed knowledge to give our children the resources to lead happier lives.

This starts in the playroom. There is a great deal to be gained from liberating children from received ideas about appropriate play and behaviour, and it's not necessary to stunt their biological impulses in the process.

It may be a waste of time taking Action Man from our sons, and they probably won't become boorish two-dimensional oafs if we don't. What's more sinister is if we take their sisters' Barbies from them because we're uncomfortable with the idea of males involved in female pursuits.

If we seek to stamp out a boy's attempts at communication and nurturing as a child, how can we expect him to express himself as an adult? Fathers need to lead the way here, as they may have a strong influence when it comes to directing their son's play choices, says Cunneen.

"Research has shown that, following divorce, there are changes in children's play, especially that of boys. In research conducted in 1985 it was found that boys from two-parent families played with more masculine toys than did boys from father-absent families, though there were no differences in gender identity.

"In mother-headed families it has been found that, two years after divorce, the six-year-old sons showed less masculine play preferences than boys from two- parent families."

The polarisation of male and female activities in the playroom leads to the polarisation of males and females in the playroom. We may be stunting children's developmental freedom if we tear them apart through the language of toys.

It's worth trying to let girls and boys build together, even if they do choose to build dollies and dumper trucks.

Opportunity knocks

The year between children's second and third birthdays has been identified as the time when they pick up sex stereotypes for toys, clothes, tools, household objects, games and work, becoming aware of adult gender role differences. From birth until this awareness kicks in, parents have a valuable window of opportunity to expose a child to varied play.

Inspired by How Schools Shortchange Girls, a 1992 study for the American Association of University Women, Linda Kekelis and Barbara Buswell developed workshops to show parents and teachers how to promote gender equality in the classroom and at home.

Kekelis suggests introducing traditionally gender-specific toys, such as cars and dolls, in a way that interests children. "Set up the playroom or outside area in a new way with blocks and stuffed animals, as a veterinary hospital or an underwater world, to encourage girls and boys to play in new ways and with new toys or activities," she says. She also advises teachers in classrooms with boys' and girls' corners to stock each with an assortment of female and male dolls, cars and blocks.

Among Kekelis's recommendations is dressing all children for active, outdoor play, to reduce the distinction between "demure" girls and "rough-and-tumble" boys.

Boys' toys

The anxiety of giving "girls' toys" to boys is a strange but powerful parental reaction that is probably rooted in a societal discomfort with homosexuality. By keeping girls' and boys' play separate, however, we are denying boys the opportunity to explore the skills that female-oriented play promotes.

Girls' toys and games tend to be nurturing, communicative and empathic. Through role-play girls explore relationships, feelings and language. Girls' games tend to be played indoors, giving them more of an opportunity to interact with adults. The domestic games girls play as children teach them about taking care of themselves and their environment.

Boys need to develop skills of communication and empathy. Without these they are emotionally restrained in adolescence, with all the pain and tragedy that can bring. A boy who has been free to explore nurturing and empathic impulses as a child will take those lessons into adulthood. An emotionally involved father is of irreplaceable value to his children.

Girls' world

Boys' toys are often concerned with technical problem-solving, building and motion. All of these activities feed into the adult spheres of science, technology and engineering. Every year we lament the pitiful number of female students who take science, yet we still don't encourage scientific play among little girls.

There's no doubt that most little girls get instant gratification from dolls and dressing up, but children will enjoy any new activity if it is supported by an adult. Perhaps if we gave our female children construction sets we might see the rise of the female engineer.

Boys' clothes are designed for action, while girls are dressed to impress. It's good to remember, however, that women's clothing was historically designed to constrain. It's hard to climb in a skirt.