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Pink Princesses and Mucky Boys

2011 October 6
by nannyjob

Which one are you?
Perhaps you’re one of those parents (is it mostly mums?) who encourage their little girl to dress up as a princess or a fairy; nowadays it’s not unusual to see girls wearing these kinds of costumes, particularly at Birthday parties and other celebrations. Or perhaps you’re a parent who has decided to take a stand of sorts. You’re determined to see to it that your little girl isn’t given a princess dress and you encourage her to muck about and play with trucks as well as dolls; you say you don’t want her becoming too much of a “girlie” girl. This approach to bringing up girls might not influence their behaviour as much as you think. Recent research indicates that traditional stereotypes of what it is to be a girl or a boy are deeply ingrained in our culture.

This article takes a closer look at this study, undertaken in Ireland, and concludes by suggesting how parents and childcarers can help children pursue interests they enjoy regardless of whether they are considered “girls” or “boys” activities. First, let’s look at the lengths a Canadian couple has gone to in order to ensure that their new baby is “free” to behave as s/he wishes, unconstrained by society’s expectations of how s/he ought to be.

A “gender-free” baby
In May this year, a couple from Canada decided not to reveal their newborn’s gender to anyone, including the grandparents. They said they wished for their child, Storm, to choose who and what s/he wanted to be. Their decision, they said, was “a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime (a more progressive place?).” A step too far? Many of us probably think so. However, while it does seem far-fetched that a baby could be influenced by gender stereotypes, a recent Irish study indicates that girls and boys have well-established ideas about what is suitable behaviour for their sex and that this starts well before the age of nine “probably in the cradle”.

Gender identity
Traditional stereotypes of boys playing football and girls wearing princess dresses are as pervasive as ever, according to research into Ireland’s nine-year old population. In general, the boys who were interviewed explained how other boys “played football and rugby” while girls “did ballet”. Only boys said they wanted to be chefs and footballers, and only girls wanted to be hairdressers and nurses. Even though the research was carried out in Ireland, we can assume that children in the UK have similar attitudes, given that our cultures are so alike.

And while the study’s authors acknowledge that biology plays a part in influencing girls and boys activities, with boys being physically stronger than girls, “biology does not explain a disposition to like pink and to be able to manage a Hoover [a vacuum cleaner]. It doesn’t explain why boys see school as more for girls and why all boys seem to feel obliged to be fanatical about football.”

Social and cultural influences
Influences such as fashion and television as well as attitudes of their parents/elders are no doubt responsible for children’s concepts of gender. The way in which women and men are portrayed by our consumer culture makes it difficult for parents – and by implication, their children – to avoid stereotyping. When babies are first born they are met by a parade of pink or a barrage of blue. And it continues thus. While we may consider ourselves liberated from antiquated notions of what a woman or a man “is” or “does”, traditional stereotypes still hold sway as the Irish study highlights.

Does it matter?
What are the implications for our children now and in the future? When one considers that figures for the UK as well as Ireland show that girls’ participation rates in sport falls well short of boys’ and that girls outperform boys in education then findings such as these give cause for some concern.

How can we help?
While it is not possible for us as parents and childcarers to change the one-dimensional versions of female and male proffered by our consumer culture, we can do our best not to impose limits on children as to what they can or cannot do. This involves giving your girls the option of playing with toys or participating in activities that are usually associated with boys and vice versa. As the co-director of the Irish study, Prof. Sheila Greene puts it, “When stereotypes are given full rein, children’s choices and their freedom to be the person they want to be can be curtailed.” We may not go so far as to hide the gender of our children, but we can help our children explore every aspect of themselves regardless of gender.

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